Tag: Keith Joseph

Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism

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Eugenics in a ball gown

I had a little discussion with Richard Murphy yesterday, and I mentioned that the right-wing libertarian think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, (ASI) has endorsed the controversial work of Adam Perkins – The Welfare Trait.” The ASI has been the impetus behind Conservative policy agendas and was the primary intellectual drive behind the privatisation of state-owned industries during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, and alongside the Centre for Policy Studies and Institute of Economic Affairs, advanced a neoliberal approach towards public policy on privatisation, taxation, education, and healthcare, and have advocated the replacement of much of the welfare state by private insurance schemes.

Professor Richard Murphy, a widely respected political economist and commentator, has written an excellent article: The Adam Smith Institute is now willing to argue that those on benefits are genetically different to the rest of us on the Tax Research UK site, which I urge you to read. 

He says “What you see in this is the deliberate construction of an argument that those on benefits are genetically different from other people. The consequences that follow are inevitable and were all too apparent in the 1930s. And this comes from a UK think tank much beloved for Tory politicians.”

The Adam Smith Institute say this in their review of Adam Perkins’s book:

“With praiseworthy boldness, Perkins gets off the fence and recommends concrete policy solutions for the problems that he identifies, arguing that governments should try to adjust the generosity of welfare payments to the point where habitual claimants do not have greater fertility than those customarily employed. The book no doubt went to press before the Chancellor announced plans to limit child tax credits to a household’s first two children, but such a measure is very much in the spirit of this bullet-biting book. The explicit targeting of fertility as a goal of welfare policy, however, goes beyond current government policy. Perkins perhaps should also have argued for measures to boost the fertility of those with pro-social personalities, such as deregulation of the childcare and housing markets to cut the costs of sustainable family formation.”

And: “Over time, therefore, the work motivation of the general population is lowered. This occurs through both genetic and environmental channels. Personality traits are substantially heritable (meaning that a decent percentage of the variation in these traits is due to naturally occurring genetic variation). Given this fact, habitual welfare claimants with employment-resistant personalities are likely to have offspring with similar personalities.”

Personality disorder or simply maintaining the social order?

Two things concern me immediately. Firstly, there is no causal link established between welfare provision and “personality disorder” or “traits”, bearing in mind that the “employment-resistant personality” is an entirely made-up category and does not feature as a clinical classification in either the ICD-10 section on mental and behavioural disorders, or in the DSM-5. Nor is employment status currently part of any clinical diagnostic criteria. Personality disorders are defined by experiences and behaviours that differ from societal norms and expectations.

Personality disorder (and mental illness) categories are therefore culturally and historically relative. Diagnostic criteria and categories are always open to sociopolitical and economic definition, highly subjective judgments, and are particularly prone to political abuse.

Drapetomania” for example, was a pseudoscientific definition of a mental illness that labelled slaves who fled captivity in the 1800s. Samuel A. Cartwright, who invented the category, also prescribed a remedy. He said: “with proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented. In the case of slaves “sulky and dissatisfied without cause” – apparently a warning sign of their imminent flight – Cartwright prescribed “whipping the devil out of them” as a “preventative measure.” As a further “remedy” for this “disease”, doctors also made running a physical impossibility by prescribing the removal of both big toes. Such abusive application of psychiatry and the medicalisation of distress and rational responses to ethnic degradation and dehumanisation is part of the edifice of scientific racism.

The classification of homosexuality as a mental illness was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1974, and was replaced by the subsequent categories of “sexual orientation disturbance” and then “ego-dystonic homosexuality,” the latter was not deleted from the manual until 1987. Medicalising and stigmatising the experiences, behaviours and beliefs of marginalised social groups, and attempting to discredit and invalidate those group’s collective experiences is a key feature of political and cultural oppression.

Personality traits are notoriously difficult to measure reliably, and it is often far easier to agree on the behaviours that typify a disorder than on the reasons why they occur. As it is, there is debate as to whether or not personality disorders are an objective disorder, a clinical disease, or simply expressions of human distress and ways of coping. At the very least, there are implications regarding diagnoses that raise important questions about context, which include political and social issues such as inequality, poverty, class struggle, oppression, abuse, stigma, scapegoating and other structural impositions.

An over-reliance on a fixed set of behavioural indicators, some have argued, undermines validity, leaving personality disorder categories prone to “construct drift,” as the diagnostic criteria simply don’t provide adequate coverage of the construct they were designed to measure. There are no physical tests that can be carried out to diagnose someone with a personality disorder – there is no single, reliable diagnostic tool such as a blood test, brain scan or genetic test. Diagnosis depends on subjective judgment rather than objective measurement.

A diagnosis of personality disorder is potentially very damaging and creates further problems for individuals by undermining their sense of self, denying their identity, experience and locating the problems, regardless of their origin and who is responsible for them, in themselves. This is in addition to exposing people to stigma and discrimination, both within the mental health system, quite often, and more broadly within our society. Medicalising and stigmatising human distress permits society to look the other way, losing sight of an individual’s social needs, experiences and context. It also alienates the stigmatised individual, and enforces social conformity, compliance and cultural homogeneity.

It may be argued that the concept of personality disorder obscures wider social issues of neglect, poverty, inequality, power relationships, oppression and abuse by focusing on the labelling of the individual. Rather than being concerned with the impact and prevalence of these issues, public outrage is focussed on containing and controlling people who challenge normative consensus and who are perceived to be dangerous. Because there is no objective test to make a diagnosis, this makes the basis of such diagnosis very questionable and highlights the propensity for its political and punitive usage. The “diagnosis” of many political dissidents in the Soviet Union with “sluggish schizophrenia” who were subsequently subjected to inhumane “treatments” led to questions about such diagnoses and punitive regimes through stigma, labeling, dehumanisation, coercion and oppression, for example.

Secondly, to recommend such specific policies on the basis of this essentially eugenic argument betrays Perkins’s intention to provide a pseudoscientific prop for the libertarian paternalist (with the emphasis being on paternalist) brand of neoliberalism and New Right antiwelfarism.

The taken-for-granted assumption that the work ethic and paid labor (regardless of its quality) may define a person’s worth is also very problematic, as it objectifies human subjects, reducing people to being little more than neoliberal commodities. Or a disposable reserve army of labor, at the mercy of “free market” requirements, if you prefer.

The government is currently at the centre of a United Nations inquiry into abuses of the human rights of sick and disabled people, and is also in breach of the rights of women and children, because of their anti-humanist, draconian welfare “reforms”. Human rights are the bedrock of democracy. The fact that some social groups are experiencing political discrimination and the failure of a government in a wealthy first-world liberal democracy to observe what are meant to be universal human rights ought to be cause for concern.

The rise of neoeugenics

Holocaust documention has highlighted that the medicalisation of social problems and systematic euthanasia of people in German mental institutions in the 1930s provided the institutional, procedural, and doctrinal origins of the genocide of the 1940s. Eugenics in Germany was founded on notions of “scientific progress,” and was about ensuring mental, racial and genetic “hygiene” and “improving” the German race, which ultimately led to eliminativist attitudes towards politically defined “impure” others.

Eugenics is a theory of the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a particular population. It encourages the reproduction of persons with socially defined “desirable genetic qualities” and discourages the reproduction of persons with socially defined “undesirable genetic qualities.” Taken to its most extreme form, eugenics supports the extermination of some groups who some others consider to be “undesirable” population.

One example of eugenic policy is the recent limiting of tax credit support for children in poorer families to two children only. Iain Duncan Smith said that this is to encourage “behavioural change” to prevent poorer families having “too many” children.

Eugenics is widely considered as a movement that endorses human rights violations of some social groups. At the very least, eugenic policy entails violations of privacy, the right to found a family, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to socioeconomic security and social protection, and at worst, violations of the right to life.

I have frequently referred to Gordon Allport in my writing. He was a social psychologist who studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. Allport’s important work reminds us of the lessons learned from politically-directed human atrocities and the parts of our collective history it seems we would prefer to forget.

In his research of how the Holocaust happened, Allport describes sociopolitical processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes tenable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards politically defined others, all of which advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.

The process always begins with political scapegoating of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as “undesirable” and as the Other: an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, extermination of the group being targeted.

Othering is recognised in social psychology as part of an outgrouping process that demarcates those that are thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream, most often using stigmatising to generate public moral outrage. It tends to reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination. Othering historically draws on essentialising explanations, culturalist explanations, behavioural explanations, genetic explanations and racialising explanations.

Hate crime, eugenics and Allport’s ladder

In the UK, much of the media is certainly being used by the right-wing as an outlet for blatant political propaganda, and much of it is manifested as a pathological persuasion to hate others. We are bombarded with anti-muslim rhetoric, “poverty porn”, headlines that condemn people needing social security as “workshy” and “scroungers.” The political scapegoating narrative directed at sick and disabled people has resulted in a steep rise in hate crimes directed at that group. By 2012, hate crime incidents against disabled people had risen to record levels, and has continued to climb ever since, rising by a further 41% last year alone. We are certainly climbing Allport’s ladder of prejudice.

A freedom of information request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) discloses that between 2010 and 2015 the government closed 1,041,219 alleged cases of benefit fraud put forward by the public. Insufficient or no evidence of fraud was discovered in 887,468 of these. In 2015 alone, of the 153,038 cases closed by the DWP’s Fraud and Error Service, 132,772 led to no action. People can use an online form on the DWP website to anonymously report “suspects,” listing their eye colour, piercings, scars, tattoos and other details they deem relevant. Suspicions can also be logged through the DWP benefit fraud hotline.

The inaccurate reports throws into question multiple government advertising campaigns, claiming that the public has a “role” in identifying “benefit cheats”. Television adverts, social media posts, letters and radio campaigns have been used to warn claimants about fraudulently claiming benefits. Government statistics show fraudulent claims accounted for 0.7% – or £1.2bn – of total benefit expenditure in the financial year 2012-2013. Some of that figure may also contain a proportion of DWP errors. An estimated £1.6bn was underpaid to claimants by the DWP. Yet people’s neighbours are being encouraged to engage in a McCarthy-style reporting of suspected benefit fraud. And a significant proportion of the public are reporting innocent citizens.

There is considerable incongruence between cases of genuine fraud and public perception: an Ipsos Mori survey in 2013 found the public believed 24% of benefits were fraudulently claimed – 34 times greater than the level seen in official statistics.

The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism) all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision.

The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing folk devils: establishing stigmatised, deviant welfare stereotypes and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public:

“If working people ever get to discover where their tax money really ends up, at a time when they find it tough enough to feed their own families, let alone those of workshy scroungers, then that’ll be the end of the line for our welfare state gravy train.” James Delingpole 2014

Poverty cannot be explained away by reference to simple narratives of the workshy scrounger as Delingpole claims, no matter how much he would like to apply such simplistic, blunt, stigmatising, dehumanising labels that originated from the Nazis (see arbeitssheu.)

The Conservatives have strongly authoritarian tendencies, and that is most evident in their anti-democratic approach to policy, human rights, equality, social inclusion and processes of government accountability.

Conservative policies are entirely ideologically driven. It is a government that is manipulating public prejudice to justify massive socioeconomic inequalities and their own policies which are creating a steeply hierarchical society based on social Darwinist survival of the wealthiest “libertarian” principles. We have a government that frequently uses words like workshy to describe vulnerable social groups.

Conservative narrative and eugenics

This is a government intentionally scapegoating poor, unemployed, disabled people and migrants. A few years ago, a Tory councillor said that “the best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.” More recently, another Tory councillor called for the extermination of gypsies, more than one Tory (for example, Lord Freud, Philip Davies) have called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people, claiming that we are not worth a minimum wage to employers.

These weren’t “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Tories believe these comments are acceptable, and we need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms” and research the consequences of austerity for the poorest and the vulnerable – those with the “least broad shoulders” – to understand that these comments reflect how many Conservatives think.

Occasionally such narrative is misjudged, pushing a little too far against the boundaries of an established idiom of moral outrage, and so meets with public resistance. When this happens, it tends to expose the fault lines of political ideology and psychosocial manipulation, revealing the intentional political creation of folk devils and an extending climate of prejudice.

In EdgbastonKeith Joseph, (1974) announced to the world that:

“The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened … a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment.”

And in 2010, the former deputy chairman of Conservative Party, Lord Howard Flight, told the London Evening Standard:

“We’re going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.”

In 2013, Dominic Cummings, a senior adviser to the UK Secretary of State for Education, provoked a flurry of complaints about his eugenicist approach, claiming that “a child’s performance has more to do with genetic makeup than the standard of his or her education.”

Steven Rose, Emeritus Professor of Biology, offered a more detailed analysis in New Scientist, concluding:

“Whatever intelligence is, these failures show that to hunt for it in the genes is an endeavour driven more by ideological commitment than either biological or social scientific judgement. To suggest that identifying such genes will enable schools to develop personalised educational programmes to match them, as Cummings does, is sheer fantasy, perhaps masking a desire to return to the old days of the 11 plus. Heritability neither defines nor limits educability.”

Pseudoscience has long been used to attempt to define and explain social problems. Lysenkoism is an excellent example. (The term Lysenkoism is used metaphorically to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, most often related to political objectives. This criticism may apply equally to either ideologically-driven “nature” and “nurture” arguments.)

Eugenics uses the cover and credibility of science to blame the casualities of socioeconomic systems for their own problems and justify an existing social power and wealth hierarchy. It’s no coincidence that eugenicists and their wealthy supporters also share a mutual antipathy for political progressivism, trade unionism, collectivism, notions of altruism and of co-operation and class struggle.

It isn’t what it ought to be

Adam Perkins wrote a book that attempts to link neurobiology with psychiatry, personality and behavioural epigenetics, Lamarkian evolution, economics, politics and social policy. Having made an impulsive inferential leap across a number of chasmic logical gaps from neurobiology and evolution into the realms of social policy and political science, seemingly unfazed by disciplinary tensions between the natural and social sciences, particularly the considerable scope for paradigmatic incommensurability, he then made a highly politicised complaint that people are criticising his work on the grounds of his highly biased libertarian paternalist framework, highly partisan New Right social Conservatism and neoliberal antiwelfarist discourse. 

The problem of discrete disciplinary discursive practices and idiomatic language habits, each presenting the problem of complex internal rules of interpretation, was seemingly sidestepped by Perkins, who transported himself across distinct spheres of meaning simply on leaps of semantic faith to doggedly pursue and reach his neuroliberal antiwelfarist destination. He seems to have missed the critical domain and central controversies of each discipline throughout his journey.

Perhaps he had a theory-laden spirit guide.

Einstein once famously said: “The theory tells you what you may observe.”

On reading Perkins’s central thesis, the is/ought distinction immediately came to mind: moral conclusions – statements of what “ought” to be – cannot be deduced from non-moral premises. In other words, just because someone claims to have knowledge of how the world is or how groups of people are – and how mice are, for that matter, since Perkins shows a tendency to conflate mice behaviour with human behaviour – (descriptive statements), this doesn’t automatically prove or demonstrate that he or she knows how the world ought to be (prescriptive statements).

There is a considerable logical gap between the unsupported claim that welfare is somehow “creating” some new kind of personality disorder, called “the employment-resistant personality”, and advocating the withdrawal of support calculated to meet only the basic physiological needs of individuals – social security benefits only cover the costs of food, fuel and shelter.

Whilst Perkins’s book conveniently fits with Conservative small state ideology, behaviourist narratives, and “culture of dependency” rhetoric, there has never been evidence to support any of the claims that the welfare state creates social problems or psychological pathologies. Historically, such claims tend to reflect partisan interests and establish dominant moral agendas aimed at culturally isolating social groups, discrediting and spoiling their identities, micromanaging dissent, and then such discourses are used in simply justifying crass inqualities and hierarchies of human worth that have been politically defined and established.

It’s truly remarkable that whenever we have a Conservative government, we suddenly witness media coverage of an unprecedented rise in the numbers of poor people who have suddenly seemingly developed a considerable range of personal “ineptitudes” and character “flaws.” Under the Thatcher administration, we witnessed Charles Murray’s discredited pseudoscientific account of “bad” and “good” folk-types taking shape in discriminatory policy and prejudiced political rhetoric.

Social Darwinism has always placed different classes and races in hierarchies and arrayed them in terms of socially constructed notions of “inferiority” and “superiority.” Charles Murray’s controversial work The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life presents another example of a discredited right-wing ideological architect, funded by the right-wing, who was then used to prop up an authoritarian Conservative antiwelfarist dogma that was also paraded as “science.” Murray had considerable influence on the New Right Thatcher and Reagan governments. Critics were often dismissed, on the basis that they were identified with “censorious political correctness,” which of course was simply a right-wing attempt to close down genuine debate and stifle criticism. The Bell Curve was part of a wider campaign to justify inequality, racism, sexism, and provided a key theme in Conservative arguments for antiwelfarism and anti-immigration policies.

A recent comprehensive international study of social safety nets from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard economists refutes the Conservative “scrounger” stereotype and dependency rhetoric. Abhijit Banerjee, Rema Hanna, Gabriel Kreindler, and Benjamin Olken re-analyzed data from seven randomized experiments evaluating cash programs in poor countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.”

The phrase “welfare dependency” was designed to intentionally divert attention from political prejudice, discrimation via policies and to disperse public sympathies towards the poorest citizens. It is used to justify inequality.

Adam Perkins does nothing to consider, isolate and explore confounding variables regarding the behaviours and responses of people needing social security support. He claims our current level of support is too high. I beg to differ. Empirical evidence clearly indicates it is set much too low to meet people’s physiological needs fully. Poverty affects people’s mental health as well as their physical health. There is a weight of empirical evidence confirming that food deprivation and income insecurity is profoundly psychologically harmful as much as it is physiologically damaging. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example.) Describing people’s anger, despondency and distress at their circumstances as “antisocial” is profoundly oppressive. The draconian policies that contribute to creating those circumstances are antisocial, not the people impacted by those policies.

If people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will either have the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to find work and meet increasingly Kafkaesque welfare conditionality requirements.

However, people claiming social security support have worked and contributed to society. Most, according to research, are desperate to find work. Most do. It is not the same people year in year out that claim support. There is no discrete class of economic freeriders and “tax payers.” The new and harsh welfare conditionality regime tends to push people into insecure, low paid employment, which establishes a revolving door of work and welfare through no fault of those caught up in it.

There is a clear relationship between human needs, human rights, and social justice. Needs are an important concept that guide empowerment based practices and the concept is intrinsic to social justice. Furthermore, the meeting of physiological and safety needs of citizens ought to be the very foundation of economic justice as well as the development of a democratic society.

The Conservatives (and Perkins) claim that the social security system, which supports the casualties of neoliberal free markets, have somehow created those casualties. But we know that the competitive, market choice-driven Tory policies create a few haves and many have-nots.

As I’ve pointed out many times before, such political rhetoric is designed to have us believe there would be no poor if the welfare state didn’t “create” them. But if Conservatives must insist on peddling the myth of meritocracy, then surely they must also concede that whilst such a system has some beneficiaries, it also creates situations of insolvency and poverty for others.

Inequality is a fundamental element of the same meritocracy script that neoliberals so often pull from the top pockets of their bespoke suits. It’s the big contradiction in the smug meritocrat’s competitive individualism narrative. This is why the welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, there are always winners and losers. Inequality is a central feature of neoliberalism and social Conservatism, and its cause therefore cannot be located within individuals.

It’s hardly “fair”, therefore, to leave the casualties of competition facing destitution and starvation, with a hefty, cruel and patronising barrage of calculated psychopolicical scapegoating, politically-directed cultural blamestorming, and a coercive, punitive behaviourist approach to the casualities of inbuilt, systemic, inevitable and pre-designated sentences of economic exclusion and poverty.

That would be regressive, uncivilised, profoundly antidemocratic and tyrannical.

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This work was cited and referenced in Challenging the politics of early intervention: Who’s ‘saving’ children and why, by Val Gillies and Rosalind Edwards, here.

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A brief history of social security and the reintroduction of eugenics by stealth

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Introduction

Our welfare state arose as a social security safety net – founded on an assurance that as a civilised and democratic society we value the well-being and health of every citizen.

There was a cross-party political consensus that such provision was in the best interests of the nation as a whole at a time when we were collectively spirited enough to ensure that no one should be homeless or starving in modern Britain.

As such, welfare is a fundamental part of the UK’s development –  our progress – the basic idea of improving people’s lives was at the heart of the welfare state and more broadly, it reflects the evolution of European democratic and rights-based societies.

Now the UK “social security” system is anything but. It has regressed to reflect the philosophy underpinning the 1834 Poor Law, to  become a system of punishments aimed at the poorest and most marginalised social groups. The Poor Law principle of less eligibility – which served as a deterrence to poor people claiming poor relief is embodied in the Conservative claim of Making work pay: benefits have been reduced to make the lowest paid, insecure employment a more appealing option than claiming benefits.

Unemployed people have absolutely no bargaining power or choice regarding their work conditions and pay. They are coerced by the state to apply for any work available. This also negatively impacts on collective bargaining more widely, the creation of a desperate reserve army of labor serves to drive wages down further. (See: Conservatism in a nutshell.)

The draconian benefit sanctions are about depriving people of their lifeline benefits because they have allegedly failed to comply in some way with increasingly stringent welfare conditionality – which is aimed at enforcing compliance, “behaviour change” and achieving reductions in welfare expenditure rather than supporting people claiming benefits and helping them to find work.

Removing a person’s means of meeting basic survival needs presents significant barriers to that person finding work. If we can’t meet our basic needs, we cannot be motivated or “incentivised” to do anything but struggle for survival.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

 

Such a political aim of “behaviour change” is founded entirely on assumptions and moral judgements about why people are unemployed or underpaid. And of course serious concerns have arisen because sanctions have tended to be extremely discriminatory. Young people, women with childcare responsibilities, people with learning disabilities, people with mental illnesses and disabled people are particularly vulnerable as a consequence of the rigid conditionality criteria.

Frankly, such an approach to welfare seems to be cruelly designed to exclude those people who need support the most. Not only does the current government fail to recognise socio-economic causes of poverty, poor wages, underemployment and unemployment because of political decision-making – preferring to blame individuals for economic misfortune – it also fails to recognise the detrimental wider social and economic implications of penalising poor people for the conservative engineering of a steeply hierarchical society.

As a government that values social inequality, and regards it as necessary for economic growth, insolvency and poverty for some is intrinsic to the Conservative ideological script and drives policy decisions, yet the Tories insist that individuals shape their own economic misfortunes.

Worse, the Conservatives are prepared to leave people without a basic means of support – one that the public have paid for themselves.

Austerity – which is aimed at the poorest members of society – has served to increase inequality, and since the Tory welfare “reforms,” we have seen a re-emergence of absolute poverty. Up until recently, our welfare system ensured that everyone could meet their basic survival needs. That no longer is the case.

A brief history of welfare

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

It was recognised that people experienced periods of economic difficulty because of structural constraints such as unemployment and recession, through no fault of their own. It was also recognised that poor health and disability may happen to anyone through no fault of their own.

The welfare state arose in the UK during the post-war period, and following the Great Depression, for numerous reasons, most of these were informed by research carried out into the causes of poverty, its effects on individuals and more broadly, on the UK economy. There were also political reasons for the Conservatives and Liberals supporting the poorer citizens – the newly enfranchised working class.

Charles Booth in London and Sebohm Rowntree in York carried out the first serious studies of poverty and its causes. They both discovered that the causes were casual labour, low pay, unemployment, illness and old age – not laziness, fecklessness, drunkenness and gambling, as previously assumed. The poverty studies raised awareness of the extent of poverty in Britain and the myriad social problems it caused.

The Boer war of 1899-1902 highlighted the general poor state of health of the nation. One out of every three volunteers failed the army medical due to malnutrition, other illnesses due to poor diet and very poor living conditions. The military informed the government at the time of the shockingly poor physical condition of many of those conscripted.

It was realised that the effects of poverty were potentially damaging to  the whole of society. Health problems and infectious disease – rife in the overcrowded slums – could affect rich and poor alike. It was recognised that the economy suffered if large numbers of people were too poor to buy goods and social problems such as exploitation, debt, crime, prostitution and drunkenness were a direct result of poverty, and not the cause of it.

The discovery of  widespread poor health as a consequence of poverty raised concerns about Britain’s future ability to compete with new industrial nations such as Germany and the USA. National efficiency would only increase if the health and welfare of the population improved.

The growth of the Labour Party and Trade Unionism presented a threat to the Liberals and the Conservatives. The new working class voters were turning to these organizations to improve their lives. The traditionally laissez-faire Liberals recognised this and supported the idea of government help for the working class.

Back to the present: welfare is no longer about welfare

The current Conservative government has taken a distinctly behaviourist turn – a form of psychopolitics which essentially reduces explanations of poverty to the personal – blaming poor people for poverty and unemployed people for unemployment, formulating policies that are about making people change their behaviour, based on a simplistic “cause and effect” approach. The government nudges and we are expected to comply. Increasing the use of benefit sanctions is one policy consequence of this psychopolitical approach.

Of course this brand of psychopolitics is all about the government assuming the fallibility of the population and the infallibility of the government when it comes to decision-making and behaviours.

Although Cameron claims that “Nudge” draws on a “paternalistic libertarian” philosophy, any government that acts upon a population, by reducing liberties, choices and by imposing behavioural modification without public consent – expecting people to change their behaviours and choices unwittingly to fit with what the state deems “right,” rather than reflecting public needs via democratic engagement and a genuine dialogue, is actually authoritarian.

As I’ve said elsewhere, welfare has been redefined: it is pre-occupied with assumptions about and modification and monitoring of the behaviour and character of recipients, rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social well-being.

Eugenics by stealth

Further intention of directing behavioural change is at the heart of policies that restrict welfare support such as tax credits to two children. The Conservatives have recently announced plans to cut welfare payments for larger families. Whilst this might not go as far as imposing limits on the birth of children for poor people, it does effectively amount to a two-child policy.

A two-child policy is defined as a government-imposed limit of two children allowed per family or the payment of government subsidies only to the first two children.

Of course this is justified using a Conservative ideologically driven scapegoating narrative of the feckless family, misbehaving and caught up in a self-imposed culture of dependence on welfare.

This restriction in support for children of larger families, however, significantly impacts on the autonomy of families, and their freedom to make decisions about their family life. Benefit rules purposefully aimed at reducing family size rarely come without repercussions.

It’s worth remembering that David Cameron ruled out cuts to tax credits before the election when asked during interviews. Tax credit rates weren’t actually cut in the recent Budget—although they were frozen and so will likely lose some of their value over the next four years because of inflation.

Some elements were scrapped, and of course some entitlements were restricted. But either way a pre-election promise not to cut child tax credits sits very uneasily with what was announced in the budget.

Iain Duncan Smith said last year that limiting child benefit to the first two children in a family is “well worth considering” and “could save a significant amount of money.” The idea was being examined by the Conservatives, despite previously being vetoed by Downing Street because of fears that it could alienate parents. Asked about the idea on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Duncan Smith said:

“I think it’s well worth looking at,” he said. “It’s something if we decide to do it we’ll announce out. But it does save significant money and also it helps behavioural change.”

Firstly, this is a clear indication of the Tories’ underpinning eugenicist designs – exercising control over the reproduction of the poor, albeit by stealth. It also reflects the underpinning belief that poverty somehow arises because of faulty individual choices, rather than faulty political decision-making and ideologically driven socio-economic policies.

Such policies are not only very regressive, they are offensive, undermining human dignity by treating children as a commodity – something that people can be incentivised to do without.

Moreover, a policy aimed at restricting support available for families where parents are either unemployed or in low paid work is effectively a class contingent policy.

The tax child credit policy of restricting support to two children seems to be premised on the assumption that it’s the same “faulty” families claiming benefits year in and year out. However, extensive research indicates that people move in and out of poverty – indicating that the causes of poverty are structural rather than arising because of individual psychological or cognitive deficits.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study that debunked  the notion of a “culture of worklessness” in 2012.  I’ve argued with others more recently that there are methodological weaknesses underlying the Conservative’s regressive positivist/behaviourist theories, especially a failure to scientifically test the permanence or otherwise of an underclass status, and a failure to distinguish between the impact of “personal inadequacy” and socio-economic misfortune.

Back in the 1970s, following his remarks on the cycle of deprivation, Keith Joseph established a large-scale research programme devoted to testing its validity. One of the main findings of the research was that there is no simple continuity of social problems between generations of the sort required for his thesis. At least half of the children born into disadvantaged homes do not repeat the pattern of disadvantage in the next generation.

Despite the fact that continuity of deprivation across generations is by no means inevitable – the theory is not supported by empirical research – the idea of the cycle of “worklessness” has become “common sense.” Clearly, common perceptions of the causes of poverty are (being) misinformed. The individual behaviourist theory of poverty predicts that the same group of people remain in poverty. This doesn’t happen.

However, the structural theory predicts that different people are in poverty over time (and further, that we need to alter the economic structure to make things better). Longitudinal surveys show that impoverished people are not the same people every year. In other words, people move in and out of poverty: it’s a revolving door, as predicted by structural explanations of poverty.

Many families are in work when they plan their children. Job loss, an accident or illness causing disability, can happen to anyone at any time. It’s hardly fair to stigmatise and penalise larger families for events that are outside of their control.

Limiting financial support to two children may also have consequences regarding the number of abortions. Abortion should never be an outcome of reductive state policy. By limiting choices available to people already in situations of limited choice – either an increase of poverty for existing children or an abortion, then women may feel they have no choice but to opt for the latter. That is not a free choice, because the state is inflicting a punishment by withdrawing support for those choosing to have more than two children, which will have negative repercussions for all family members.

Many households now consist of step-parents, forming reconstituted or blended families. The welfare system recognises this as assessment of household income rather than people’s marital status is used to inform benefit decisions. The imposition of a two child policy has implications for the future of such types of reconstituted family arrangements.

If one or both adults have two children already, how can it be decided which two children would be eligible for child tax credits?  It’s unfair and cruel to punish families and children by withholding support just because those children have been born or because of when they were born.

And how will residency be decided in the event of parental separation or divorce – by financial considerations rather than the best interests of the child? That flies in the face of our legal framework which is founded on the principle of paramountcy of the needs of the child. I have a background in social work, and I know from experience that it’s often the case that children are not better off residing with the wealthier parent, nor do they always wish to.

Restriction on welfare support for children will directly or indirectly restrict women’s autonomy over their reproduction. It allows the wealthiest minority to continue having babies as they wish, whilst aiming to curtail the poor by disincentivisingbreeding” of the “underclass.” It also imposes a particular model of family life on the rest of the population. Ultimately, this will distort the structure and composition of the population, and it openly discriminates against the children of large families.

People who are in favour of eugenics believe that the quality of a race can be improved by reducing the fertility of “undesirable” groups, or by discouraging reproduction and encouraging the birth rate of “desirable” groups.

Eugenics arose from the social Darwinism and laissez-faire economics of the late 19th century, which emphasised competitive individualism, a “survival of the wealthiest” philosophy and sociopolitical rationalisations of inequality.

Eugenics is now considered to be extremely unethical and it was criticised and condemned widely when its role in justification narratives of the Holocaust was revealed.

But that doesn’t mean it has gone away. It’s hardly likely that a government of a so-called first world liberal democracy – and fully signed up member of the European Convention on Human Rights and a signatory also to the United Nations Universal Declaration – will publicly declare their support of eugenics, or their totalitarian tendencies, for that matter, any time soon.

But any government that regards some social groups as “undesirable” and formulates policies to undermine or restrict that group’s reproduction rights is expressing eugenicist values, whether those values are overtly expressed as “eugenics” or not.

Conservatives are not known for valuing diversity, it has to be said.

Implications of the welfare “reforms”: Human rights

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the UK is a signatory, reads:

  1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
  2.  Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

A recent assessment report by the four children’s commissioners of the UK called on the government to reconsider its deep welfare cuts, voiced “serious concerns” about children being denied access to justice in the courts, and called on ministers to rethink plans to repeal the Human Rights Act.

The commissioners, representing each of the constituent nations of the UK, conducted their review of the state of children’s policies as part of evidence they will present to the United Nations.

Many of the government’s policy decisions are questioned in the report as being in breach of the convention, which has been ratified by the UK.

England’s children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, said:

“We are finding and highlighting that much of the country’s laws and policies defaults away from the view of the child. That’s in breach of the treaty. What we found again and again was that the best interest of the child is not taken into account.”

Another worry is the impact of changes to welfare, and ministers’ plan to cut £12bn more from the benefits budget. There are now 4.1m children living in absolute poverty – 500,000 more than there were when David Cameron came to power.

It’s noted in the report that ministers ignored the UK supreme court when it found the “benefit cap” – the £25,000 limit on welfare that disproportionately affects families with children, and particularly those with a larger number of children – to be in breach of Article 3 of the convention – the best interests of the child are paramount:

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

The United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) applies to all children and young people aged 17 and under. The convention is separated into 54 articles: most give children social, economic, cultural or civil and political rights, while others set out how governments must publicise or implement the convention.

The UK ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) on 16 December 1991. That means the State Party (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) now has to make sure that every child benefits from all of the rights in the treaty. The treaty means that every child in the UK has been entitled to over 40 specific rights. These include:

Article 1

For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.

Article 2

1. States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.

2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members.

Article 3

1. In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

2. States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures.

3. States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision.

Article 4

States Parties shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention. With regard to economic, social and cultural rights, States Parties shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation.

Article 5

States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.

Article 6

1. States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life.

2. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.

Article 26

1. States Parties shall recognize for every child the right to benefit from social security, including social insurance, and shall take the necessary measures to achieve the full realization of this right in accordance with their national law.

2. The benefits should, where appropriate, be granted, taking into account the resources and the circumstances of the child and persons having responsibility for the maintenance of the child, as well as any other consideration relevant to an application for benefits made by or on behalf of the child.

Here are the rest of the Convention Articles

The Nordic social democratic model of welfare

Finally, it’s worth noting, as sociologist Lane Kenworthy has pointed out, that the Nordic welfare experience of the modern social democratic model can:

“promote economic security, expand opportunity, and ensure rising living standards for all . . . while facilitating freedom, flexibility and market dynamism.”

Nordic welfare models include support for a universalist welfare state which is aimed specifically at enhancing individual autonomy, promoting social mobility and ensuring the universal provision of basic human rights, as well as for stabilizing the economy, alongside a commitment to free trade.

The Nordic model is distinguished from other types of welfare states by its emphasis on maximizing labor force participation, promoting gender equality, egalitarian and extensive benefit levels and the large magnitude of income redistribution.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has noted that there is higher social mobility in the Scandinavian countries than in the United States, and argues that Scandinavia is now the land of opportunity that the United States once was. The Nordics cluster at the top of league tables of everything from economic competitiveness to social health to happiness.

They have avoided both southern Europe’s economic sclerosis and America’s extreme inequality. Development theorists have taken to calling successful modernisation “getting to Denmark”.

The Nordics demonstrate very well that it is possible to combine competitive capitalism with a large state: they employ 30% of their workforce in the public sector, compared with an OECD average of 15%. The main lesson to learn from the Nordics is not ideological but practical.

The state is popular not because it is big but because it works. A Norwegian pays tax more willingly than a Californian because he or she has access to decent schools, support when times are difficult and free health care as a result.

Norway ranks among the richest countries in the world. GDP per capita is among the highest in the world.

Norway regards welfare services not as social costs but as fundamental social investment for open innovation and growth.

Innovation should not be an opportunity for a few only. It should be democratised and distributed in order to tackle the causes of growing inequality.

Inequality hampers economic growth.

We can’t afford not to have a welfare state.

See also:

Children’s Commissioner warns that UK is now in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Human rights are the bedrock of democracy, which the Tories have imperiled.

Welfare reforms break UN convention

Welfare reforms, food banks, malnutrition and the return of Victorian diseases are not coincidental, Mr Cameron

The government refuse to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of welfare “reforms”. Again.

Suicides reach a ten year high and are linked with welfare “reforms”

The poverty of responsibility and the politics of blame. Part 3 – the Tories want to repeal the 2010 Child Poverty Act

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

The poverty of responsibility and the politics of blame. Part 3 – the Tories want to repeal the 2010 Child Poverty Act

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Political theories of poverty vary across the political spectrum, with those on the right tending to individualise social problems more generally, and those on the left tending to socialise them. Very different policy implications stem from each perspective.

Since the Thatcher era, the New Right have developed a distinctive behaviourist approach to poverty, founded on the idea that poor people are poor because they lack certain qualities and traits.

In 2013, Iain Duncan Smith worked on developingbetter measures of child povertyto provide a “more accurate reflection of the reality of child poverty.” According to the Conservatives, poverty isn’t caused by a lack of income.

The Coalition conducted a weighted and biased consultation at the time that did little more than provide a Conservative ideological framework in the form of leading questions, to catch carefully calculated, led and subliminally shaped public responses.

Iain Duncan Smith has indicated he will repeal the 2010 Child Poverty Act, which committed the government to a target of eradicating child poverty in the UK by 2020. He has dispensed with the current relative definition of poverty (anyone in a household beneath 60% of median income), abandoned the targets and introduced a new (although rather unclear) definition: the child poverty target is to be replaced with a new duty to report levels of educational attainment, “worklessness” and addiction, rather than relative material deprivation and disadvantage.

Duncan Smith argues that the measures set originally by Tony Blair are a “poor measure of poverty”, and he claims that families can fall or go above the relative poverty line for reasons that have little to do with their material wealth.

Using the Centre for Social Justice’s 2012 report Rethinking Child Poverty, (set up by none other than Iain Duncan Smith in 2004) to support his ideological perspective, Duncan Smith’s account of UK poverty is defined by bad parenting, by alcohol dependency and drug-addiction.

There is of course very little focus on accounts of parents who are poor because they are unemployed or in low-paid work. Or because of government policies that are directed at rewarding wealthy people and punishing poor people. (See also: We are raising more money for the rich.) Duncan Smith said:

“We know in households with unstable relationships, where debt and addiction destabilise families, where parents lack employment skills, where children just aren’t ready to start school, these children don’t have the same chances in life as others. It is self evident.”

Of course it’s also “self-evident” that debt, addiction and unstable relationships happen to wealthy people as well, so as far as causal explanations of poverty go, this one certainly lacks credibility and coherence.

Furthermore, I propose that a lack of opportunities and life chances arise from the cumulative effects of discriminatory economic and social structures and policies. Iain Duncan Smith went on to say:

“They cannot break out of that cycle of disadvantage. We are currently developing these measures right now – family breakdown, problem debt and drug and alcohol dependency – and we will report each year on these life chances as well.”

The Conservatives are claiming that poverty arises because of the “faulty” lifestyle choices of people with personal deficits and aim to reconstruct the identities of poor people via psychopolitical interventions, but it is only through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty by addressing unemployment, underemployment, job insecurity, low paid work, inadequate welfare support and institutionalised inequalities that any meaningful social progress can be made.

Over the last five years, the UK has become the most unequal country in Europe, on the basis of income distribution and wages. If that increase in inequality arose because of individual failings, as the Conservatives are claiming, why have those personal failings only become apparent so suddenly within the past five years? The Child Poverty Action Group voiced concerns :

“The statement isn’t about strengthening efforts to end child poverty, but about burying the failure of the government’s child poverty approach. And with more cuts coming down the line, child poverty is set to rise.”

The Bell Swerve

Iain Duncan Smith draws on a framework of ideas that was shaped to a large extent by the white male supremacist musings of Charles Murray, the controversial ultra-conservative American sociologist that exhumed social Darwinism and gave the bones of it originally to Bush and Thatcher to re-cast.

Murray’s New Right culture of poverty theory popularised notions that poverty is caused by an individual’s personal deficits and character flaws; that the poor have earned their position in society; the poor deserve to be poor because this is a reflection of their lack of qualities and level of abilities. Murray’s very controversial work The Bell Curve was a novel of racist pseudoscience and manipulated, misleading statistics which he used to propose that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.

According to Murray, disadvantaged groups are disadvantaged because, on average, they cannot compete with white men, who are intellectually, psychologically and morally superior. Murray advocates the total elimination of the welfare state, arguing that public policy cannot overcome the “innate deficiencies” that cause unequal social and educational outcomes.

Many critics, including myself, regard Murray as a white supremacist, a nationalist that has a long history of advocating discredited ideas that are rooted in eugenics. Nonetheless, Murray has had a significant influence on Conservative thinking about welfare in particular, both here in the UK and across the Atlantic.

“Unless the government sets out a clear target for improving the life chances of the poorest families, its agenda for healing social division in our country will lack both ambition and credibility.”

The Children’s Commissioner issued a statement regarding the repeal of the Child Poverty Act:

“The Child Poverty Act targets were not just about relative poverty – which is a measure of inequality, important in itself – but also included a measure of material deprivation. Critically, the new measures proposed today would not include any tangible measure of poverty, hunger, cold, or deprivation of any kind. Poverty is a financial measure. Unemployment statistics and statistics on educational attainment are already collected.

“The majority of children living in poverty have at least one parent who is working. Employment is important but if wages do not rise substantially in relation to living costs it will not provide a route out of poverty alone. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has today published a report stating that families with children working full-time on the National Minimum Wage are now 15% short of the Minimum Income Standard that people believe offers an acceptable standard of living.  Today’s announcement will effectively confine to history any figures on the millions of children being raised in families who experience in-work poverty denying them necessities such as adequate food, clothing and heating.”

Last year, the Children’s Commissioner said that the increasing inequality which has resulted from the cuts, and in particular, the welfare reforms, means that Britain is now in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects children from the adverse effects of government economic measures.

Austerity cuts are disproportionately targeted at the poorest. It’s particularly shameful that absolute poverty has returned to Britain since 2010, given that we are the 5th wealthiest nation in the world. That indicates clearly just how much inequality has increased under the Conservatives since 2010.

Poverty and inequality are a consequence of the way that society is organised, political decision-making and how resources are allocated through discriminatory government policies.

Poverty arises because of the behaviour of the powerful and wealthy, not the poor.

___

See also:

The Poverty of Responsibility and the Politics of Blame

The poverty of responsibility and the politics of blame – part 2

The just world fallacy

The right-wing moral hobby horse: thrift and self-help, but only for the poor

The New New Poor Law

UK Wealth Divide widens, with inequality heading for “most unequal country in the developed world”

Poor people are poor because they don’t know how to get something from nothing

1957929_293215800829475_303676825_oPictures courtesy of  Robert Livingstone

What will the Tories suggest next. “Compassionate” genocide?

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The Tory parliamentary candidate for Cambridge, Chamali Fernando sparked outrage and horror after saying mental health patients should wear wristbands to identify their conditions. Fernando was speaking at a hustings event hosted by the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public when she made the comment.

Andy Burnham, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, said:

“There has been an enormous amount of work in Parliament to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health. But comments like this are so disappointing – they set us back and remind us how far we have to go. Jeremy Hunt must disown these comments, instruct his candidate to apologise and make it clear that they form no part of Conservative Party policy.”

“This proposal shows the candidate’s harmful views on mental health.

Disability and Mental Health Adviser at University of the Arts, London Annabel Crowley said.

“Research carried out by the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London shows personal contact with mentally ill people is the most effective way to reduce discrimination.”

Crowley says Fernando’s proposals would only alienate the mentally ill and “further curtail their freedom,” which would encourage further stigmatization.

We need to provide adequate care and support, not blame the victims of a failing health service,” she added.

Mental Health Services are in crisis because of Coalition cuts to funding. The Government has been criticised for allowing mental health services to be cut disproportionately, as the NHS as a whole undergoes the most severe budget cut in its history. And let’s not forget that under the guise of a “policy of deinstitutionalisation,” Thatcher’s “Care in the Community” Bill was about anything but care: it was all about cutting costs, as reflected in the experiences of many people leaving long term institutional care and being left to fend for themselves in the community. “Compassionate Tories”: there is no such thing.

Dr. Pooky Kingsmith, a mental health specialist, said that she [Fernando] “fails to understand” what the wristbands would achieve “beyond increasing the stigma and prejudice already experience by mentally ill people.”

A petition has since been set up calling for Fernando to stand down in the election. The description on the petition read:

“This kind of thinking has no place in modern society and especially not in someone who is hoping to be elected as an MP.

I can’t see any possible justification in allowing Ms Fernando to continue to stand for election after showing such prejudice against the mentally ill, and if allowed to do so, shows a total disregard to the people in this country, who already have to battle against the misunderstanding and ignorance of their mental illness.”

Chamali Fernando was asked how the authorities could help the police better deal with people with mental health issues.

Fernando responded that wristbands which disclose a person’s illness could help barristers, such as herself, to better aid the public.

She said wearing colour-coded wristbands indicating the nature of the person’s condition would be helpful to professionals as “they often could not explain themselves.”

Perhaps Fernando had designs that are something like this in mind:


1936 illustration of Nazi camp ID-emblems.

The red triangle was used by the Nazis to identify social democrats, socialists, trade unionists, Freemasons and communists, for example. The pink triangle was primarily used for identifying homosexual men, and the black triangle was used to identify “asocial elements” (asozial) and “work shy” (arbeitsscheu) including those who were mentally ill, pacifists, vagrants and the Roma.

And for anyone itching to invoke Godwin’s law at this point, I suggest you hang fire and read about Allport’s Ladder of Prejudice. Whilst I am very aware that we need take care not to trivialise the terrible events of Nazi Germany by making casual comparisons, there are some clear and important parallels on a socio-political level and a psycho-social one, that I feel are crucially important to recognise.

Gordon Allport studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. In his research of how the Holocaust happened, he describes socio-political processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes acceptable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards “others” that advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.

The process always begins with political scapegoating of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, genocide.

As I have discussed elsewhere on this site, we have a government that uses words like workshy to describe vulnerable groups. This is a government that is intentionally scapegoating poor, unemployed, disabled people and migrants. One Tory councillor called for the extermination of gypsies, more than one Tory MP has called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people. (See also David Freud was made to apologise for being a true Tory in public.)

David Freud’s comment that disabled people are not worth the minimum wage was not a momentary lapse, nor was it unrepresentative of Tory views more generally. He is the contemptuous architect of the grossly punitive Tory Bedroom Tax that disproportionately affects households of disabled people. The Tories endorsed Freud’s discriminatory policy proposal, and savagely ridiculed the UN rapporteur, Raquel Rolnik, when she pointed out, very professionally and reasonably, that the policy contravenes human rights.

He is the same government minister that rejected suggestions that austerity policies have led to an increase in food bank use – making the jaw-droppingly astonishing suggestion that food bank charities are somehow to blame. This former investment banker and peer told the Lords that the increase in the usage of food banks was “supply led”. He said:

“If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly, food from the food banks is a free good and by definition with a free good there’s almost infinite demand.”

Poverty reduced to blame-the-individual neoliberal motivational formulae. Yet it is the government that are responsible for policies that create and sustain inequality and poverty.

We need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms” and research the consequences of austerity for the vulnerable – those with the  “least broad shoulders” –  to understand that these comments reflect how conservatives think.

This is a government that is using public prejudice to justify massive socio-economic inequalities and their own policies that are creating a steeply hierarchical, society based on social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” libertarian, minarchist principles.

The Tory creation of socio-economic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of vulnerable social groups, particularly endorsed by the mainstream media, is simply a means of manipulating public perceptions and securing public acceptance of the increasingly punitive and repressive basis of the Tories’ welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and provision.

Let’s not forget that we were recently informed that the Tories plan to limit child benefit to the first two children because it would save money. The idea is being examined by the Conservatives, despite previously being vetoed by Downing Street because of fears that it could “alienate” parents.

Asked about the idea on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Duncan Smith said:

“I think it’s well worth looking at. It’s something if we decide to do it we’ll announce out. But it does save significant money and also it helps behavioural change.”

This is a clear indication of the Tories’ underpinning eugenicist designs – exercising control over the reproduction of the poor, albeit by stealth. It also reflects the underpinning belief that poverty somehow arises because of faulty individual choices, (as opposed to faulty political decision-making and ideologically-driven socio-economic policies), that those choices are non-rational, stereotypical, and that reducing cost to the State involves making people change their “faulty,” stereotypical behaviours.

This government’s policies are contibuting significantly to mental illness: Suicides have reached a ten year high and are linked with welfare “reforms”.

And 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” who are claiming employment support allowance (ESA) and job seekers allowance (JSA).

As I have written elsewhere, the government have 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.”

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.” In this case, the here and now consists of taking any job available, regardless of its suitability, or face being sanctioned.

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 bad events is beneficial.

The onus is on the individual to adapt 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 benefits 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 ? Starvation and destitution?

The political vilification of sick and disabled people and the poor, amplified in the media, has preceded policies particularly aimed at the steady removal of State support, indicating a clear scapegoating process, and this isn’t indicative of a government that is “neglectful”- it is patently intentional, hence the pre-emptive “justification” narratives to garner public support and acceptance towards such punitive and harsh policies.

As Frances Ryan says:

“The ideology of a small state or the belief that benefits build dependency are crass, irrelevant details to what at its core is simply a decision about how to treat a human being. This is particularly damning when one person has all the power and the other is forced through economic necessity to take whatever humiliation or pain they are given. To do that to someone – let alone hundreds of thousands – is no accident. It is a conscious decision, that has been made over and over again by this government.”

I’ve consistently expressed my own well-founded, carefully considered, evidenced view that the Tories are authoritarians,  social Dawinists, and their social policies are founded on a creeping and implicit eugenics by stealth, fueled by their preference for a steeply hierarchical, unequal society, anachronistic ideas about “deserving” and “undeserving”, which belong to the 1834 Poor Law era, and a behaviourist approach to socio-economic circumstances .

In Edgbaston, Keith Joseph, (1974) announced to the world that:

“The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened … a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment.”

And in 2010, the former deputy chairman of Conservative Party, Lord Howard Flight, told the London Evening Standard:

“We’re going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.”

These comments are not momentary lapses, nor are they unrepresentative of Tory views more generally. They reflect the true colours of the nazi nasty party.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone


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