Tag: Lord Freud

State-regulated cryptocurrency and micro-managing people claiming welfare

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Context

I’ve written more than one critical piece about the Government’s part-privatised Behavioural Insights Team (Nudge Unit), particularly with regard to its insidious and malevolent influence, manifested in a range of psychoregulation policies aimed at “behavioural changes” which are being imposed on the poorest citizens. Technocracy is the “science of social engineering.” Nudge is a technocratic approach to fulfilling the requirements of neoliberalism. It’s about maintaining an established socioeconomic order, rather than advancing progressive social change.

In 1932, Howard Scott and Marion King Hubbert founded Technocracy Incorporated, and proposed that money be replaced by energy certificates. The group argued that “apolitical, rational engineers should be vested with authority to guide an economy into a thermodynamically balanced load of production and consumption, thereby doing away with unemployment and debt.” Sounds just like old school sociological Functionalism to me: it’s a systems theory  – utterly tautological and deterministic tosh. Bear with me, because there’s a couple of contemporary parallels I want to discuss.

The Conservatives prefer to do away with unemployment and debt by “incentivising behaviour change” to ensure that poor people who don’t have any money to live on are punished out of their poverty. 

Smart Cards, another antiwelfarist, technocratic imposition, entered our collective consciousness during autumn 2012, as Iain Duncan Smith declared his intention to discipline Britain’s “troubled” families. In unveiling his proposals at the Conservative Conference back in October 2012, Duncan Smith attempted to frame the cards as better value for taxpayers’ money, implying that poor people don’t pay taxes, (when the poorest actually pay proportionally more) and his rhetoric was extremely stigmatising.

He said: I am looking […] at ways in which we could ensure that money we give [benefit claimants] to support their lives is not used to support a certain lifestyle.”  [Boldings mine.]

Then MP Alex Shelbrooke presented his private member’s bill in December 2012, providing us with yet another shuddering glimpse into the underlying Tory moral outrage, prejudice and punitive attitudes towards people claiming benefits. He argued for a “welfare cash card” to limit spending to absolute basics. Isn’t welfare provision as it is just enough to cover the absolute basics for survival? It’s calculated to meet the basic cost of food, fuel and shelter only.

Despite his scapegoating narrative about addressing “idleness”, Shelbrooke’s proposed psychocompulsion was intended to apply to those in work, who claim benefits such as tax credits and housing benefit, penalising and outgrouping those on a minimum or low wage, also. The plan was to restrict the goods that people claiming benefits could buy with their cards. Not so much offering a “nudge” or “incentive”, but rather, delivering a bludgeoning enforcement, without a shred of respect for diverse needs and individuals’ autonomy and choice. 

A principled objection is that we should not be stigmatising or inflicting punishments on people, or reducing their freedom to spend money as they need and wish, just because they are forced to spend some time out of work, or because they aren’t paid a wage that is sufficient to live on. Such an approach is extremely draconian.

Having been previously rejected, this is certainly not a democratically endorsed policy.

This is an authoritarian restriction on what people claiming benefits may buy, and a limiting of lifestyle choices that they are permitted. It is a particularly spitefully directed ideological move that does not make any sense in terms of the wider economy, or in terms of any notion of “supporting” people, and “fairness.” The latter two categories of reason would entail extending opportunities and freedoms, not repressing them. 

Financial hardship already limits choice. When people are struggling financially, budgeting isn’t the problem: low wages, benefit cuts and rising costs of essential items are. Those factors are ultimately shaped by government policies, not poor people.

No matter how this is dressed up by the Tories, poor people don’t respond to “corrective” narratives and coercive policy like Pavlov’s dogs. Yet the Tories nevertheless insist on placing a psychopolitical variant of operant conditioning – behaviour modification – at the core of their increasingly repressive class-contingent policies. This isn’t about state “assistance” for the entitled poor, most of who have worked and contributed to the treasury, contrary to the politically expedient “economic free rider” label.  It’s about traditional Tory prejudices, state interference and coercion. It’s more blaming and punishing the casualities of neoliberalism and social conservatism. 

Having failed in introducing the punitive smart card more than once, the Conservatives are now resorting to a stealthy introduction of a variation to curtail the freedom of poor people claiming social security, using cryptocurrency, state regulation and an unprecedented, Orwellian level of state monitoring and control of what people who are struggling to make ends meet are buying. 

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Some basic (but wordy) definitions

Cryptocurrency is a medium of exchange, alternative to Fiat currencies, which uses a type of virtual currency, such as bitcoin. It uses cryptography for security and anti-counterfeiting measures. Public and private keys are often used to transfer cryptocurrency between individuals. Ownership of bitcoins, for example, implies that a user can spend bitcoins associated with a specific address. To do so, a payer must digitally sign the transaction using the corresponding private key. Without knowledge of the private key, the transaction cannot be signed and bitcoins cannot be spent. The network verifies the signature using the public key.

Bitcoin is a pseudonymous currency, meaning that funds are not tied to real-world entities, but rather, to bitcoin addresses. For cryptocurrency enthusiasts, the pseudoanonymity element is attractive, as it tends to empower individuals rather than institutions. Cryptocurrencies typically feature decentralised and unregulated control, and transactions are recorded in a public distributed ledger called the blockchain. 

Owners of bitcoin addresses are not explicitly identified, but all transactions on the blockchain are public

The value of a cryptocurrency is determined by the market (whatever people are willing to pay for it). The welfare or state of your nation’s economy will not affect the value of your cryptocurrency. The value of a cryptocurrency is based solely on global supply and demand and functions much like a commodity on the stock market.

Cryptocurrencies are ordinarily used outside of existing banking and governmental institutions and exchanged over the Internet. They have often been seen by the establishment as a “rogue currency”, and as a potential threat to the monetary order. Because of the pseudoanonymity afforded by “virtual assets”, cryptocurrency is also sometimes used in controversial settings such as online darknet markets, like Silk Road, accessible by Tor, (free software for enabling anonymous communication, it conceals a user’s location and usage) which further minimises the risk of detection by law enforcement agencies. (See: Silk Road and Bitcoin.)

People in Russia and China have been bypassing very strict surveillance laws by using bitcoin-like cryptocurrencies in order to communicate securely. Cryptocurrencies, starting with bitcoin, have emerged and been increasingly utilised almost in parallel with revelations from National Security Agency (NSA) whistle-blower Edward Snowden about mass government surveillance. 

As the sheer extent of government spying still continues to emerge, encrypted communication services become important and have surged in popularity. Tech companies, including Facebook, Google and Apple, have capitalised on this by adding encryption to their services. However revelations that these same companies seem complicit in the NSA’s surveillance operations have led to some reservations from users. Now it seems the UK government wants to utilise cryptocurrency, inverting the political freedom it allowed by turning it into a tool of state control. 

Government proposals: virtual food vouchers and automated nudge

Earlier this year, the government set out proposals in a report regarding how Blockchain Technologies’ distributed ledger technology which provides “efficient and transparent” digital records of cryptocurrency transactions, could be used for public services. In their report called Distributed Ledger Technology: Beyond block chain, the government’s scientific advisor says:

“Distributed ledger technology (DLTs) offer significant challenges to established orthodoxy and assumptions of best practice, far beyond the recording of transactions and ledgers. These potentially revolutionary organisational structures and practices should be experimentally trialed — perhaps in the form of technical and non-technical demonstrator projects — so that practical, legal and policy implications can be explored.”

“Areas where we believe work could be taken forward include the protection of national infrastructure, reducing market friction for SMEs [Small and medium-sized enterprises] and the distribution of funds from Department for Work and Pensions and other government departments.” [Boldings mine.]

To recap, a distributed ledger is a database that can record financial, physical or electronic assets for sharing across a network through what is claimed to be entirely transparent updates of information.

Its first incarnation was Blockchain in 2008, which underpinned digital cash systems such as Bitcoin. The technology has now evolved into a variety of models that may be applied to different business problems.

Speaking at Payments Innovation Conference earlier this month, Lord Freud, one of the main architects of the welfare “reforms” said:

“Claimants are using an app on their phones through which they are receiving and spending their benefit payments. With their consent, their transactions are being recorded on a distributed ledger to support their financial management.”

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been working with Barclays, Npower, University College London and a UK-based distributed ledger platform startup called GovCoin to create an app which tracks people’s benefit spending

The ongoing trial which, is designed to demonstrate “the practical applications of the technology,” began in June. It’s yet another Conservative experiment on people claiming social security.

Jeremy Wilson, the vice chairman of corporate banking at Barclays, said: “This initiative focuses on adding an additional layer of richer data and identity onto payments, so that a deeper and more effective relationship can be established between the government and claimants.”

I wonder exactly what that “effective relationship” will entail? I bet it’s not one based on mutual respect and democratic dialogue. I also wonder if the Department for Work and Pensions will be issuing people who have no income with Smart phones. 

How will the collected information on spending be used? Are we going to see people claiming social security being named and shamed for buying Mars bars, a bottle of wine or a book? Or birthday and Christmas presents for their children? Will the state be sanctioning people that make purchases which the government deems “unnecessary”? 

He added: “We are keen to see how the positive potential of this service develops and adds to our wider efforts to explore the uses of distributed ledger technology.”

Distributed ledger technology was identified as a way of potentially “saving billions of pounds a year from welfare fraud and overpayment errors.”

Oh, that whoppingly over-inflated 0.7% of claimants again. Many of whom were simply overpaid as the result of an administrative error, after all. Just imagine how many trillions we would save if we used technology to get a grip of tax avoidance and tackle offshore tax havens, and addressing the “spending habits” of the hoarding wealthy. 

The technology is hoped to provide a cheap and easy way of getting welfare claimants without bank accounts into the system as well as verifying their identities, and would also provide a “transparent account of how public money was spent, transform the delivery of public services and boost productivity,” the government’s chief science adviser, Sir Mark Walport, said in a report last January. Those same words are used every time vulture capitalists are circling a public service, on the hunt for easy profits.

Walport said: “Distributed ledger technology has the potential to transform the delivery of public and private services.”  

More words from the vulture capitalist crib sheet of glittering generalities.

“It has the potential to redefine the relationship between government and the citizen in terms of data sharing, transparency and trust and make a leading contribution to the government’s digital transformation plan.”

The government distributes £3.8bn in payments every day. However, there are some serious concerns over how protection of data and privacy with the technology will be “managed.”

The Open Data Institute (ODI) welcomed the findings on the whole. However, it warned that the government must be wary of the challenges involved in blockchain technology and apply it in an effective way. They say: “We agree that blockchains could be used to build confidence in government services, through public auditability, and could also be used for widely distributed data collection and publishing, such as supply chain information. Smart contracts also hold great potential; what if your train tickets were smart contracts that meant you paid less for delayed trains?” 

Smart cards and smart contracts, the more things change, the more the Tories stay the same.

Further comment from the ODI: “However, in our research we have seen cases where people are trying to bolt old, failed or impossible policy and business ideas onto the new technology or to unnecessarily reinvent things that work perfectly well.”

The institute also warned of the privacy issues raised by incorporating private data and suggested the government better develop and solve these challenges by focusing on industry specific groups such as the finance or healthcare sectors.

Some thoughts

Conservatives claim to endorse personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty, and deregulation, amongst other things. They believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals. Conservatives claim their policies generally emphasise “empowerment of the individual to solve problems”.

So how does any of this tally with harsh welfare cuts, public service cuts, restrictions on the right to by certain goods, the removal of access to legal aid, limiting housing options for the poorest, bedroom tax, numerous human rights contraventions, increasing conditionality for sick and disabled people, psychocompulsion through increasingly stringent welfare behavioural conditionality and the draconian sanction regime, for example?

Limiting consumer choice and spending flies in the face of the Tories’ own free market dogma. Furthermore, as it stands legally, the government cannot currently stipulate how people claiming benefits spend their money. So they would have to re-write the law to suit their “policy outcomes”. Again.

The Tory definition of “troubled family” conflates poverty, ill health, unemployment and criminality. Iain Duncan Smith claims to be targeting substance abusers (“drug addicts” and “alcoholics”) but it’s clear that the government’s definition means he’s referring largely to the poor and disabled people. His proposal to deal with people who don’t buy their children food because they’re “drug addicted” would actually target people who don’t buy food because they can’t afford it.

Once again we see the disciplinarian and psychocratic Tories stigmatising the poorest people for the conditions that Tory policies have caused. If such “troubled families” existed (and the Joseph Rowntree foundation research has put paid to the myth of families with three generations unemployed), it would not be reasonable to treat their situations as an issue of personal spending choices rather than a consequence of how our economy is run.

The Tories have, over the past five years, parodied a political process that is supposed to be about engaging the public’s rational, conscious minds, as well as facilitating their needs within society. The UK is not an inclusive democracy. Instead we see the employment of a behaviourist brand of psychocomplulsion, and the media are complicit in propping up an increasingly incoherent, irrational and profoundly prejudiced ideology which informs class-contingent, anti-social and deeply damaging neoliberal policies.

I’ve pointed out previously that government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences.

In democratic societies, citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. “Accountability to the taxpayer” is being used more and more by the state as a justification to exclude those needing financial support from democratic society. Yet those people claiming benefits are not the same people year by year. The “economic free-rider” myth assumes that people claiming welfare do so continuously, yet we know that most move in and out of work, being forced to undertake insecure, poorly paid work regularly. It’s hardly fair to punish people for the detrimental conditions of the wider labor market.

In the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs. Instead, policy is about directing us in how to be. We are being coerced into behaving only in ways that accommodate and prop up neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism is a system of economic arrangements that greatly benefits a few powerful and wealthy people and impoverishes the majority of the public incrementally. As each social group reaches a crisis – struggling to survive – scapegoating narratives are constructed and disseminated via the media that blame them for their insolvency, creating socially divisive and politically managed categories of “others,” which serve to de-empathise the rest of the population and divert them from the fundamental fact that it isn’t the poor that create poverty: it is the neoliberal decision-makers and those who are steadily removing and privatising our public funds and ebulliently shrinking state responsibility towards citizens, leaving many at the mercy of “market forces” without a state safety net – it’s economic Darwinism.

“Workers of the World unite. You have nothing to lose but their blockchains.” Hubert Huzzah

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All despots and bullies are behaviourists. They inflict punishment on others to get the “outcomes” that they want. 

Governments are elected to reflect and accommodate public need. In the UK, the government expects the public to change their perceptions, expectations and behaviours to meet the government’s need. They say:

“Behaviour change is one of the primary functions of government communications – helping change and save lives, helping the government run more effectively as well as save taxpayer’s money.

Our approach is to use a mix of awareness raising, persuasion, practical help and behavioural theory, to demonstrate why changes in behaviour are important and to make these changes easy for the public to adopt”.

The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour change

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Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich, Human Rights and infrahumanisation

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The European Convention on Human Rights, which came into force on 3 September 1953, guarantees a range of political rights and freedoms of the individual against interference by the State. The Convention came about as an international response to the horrors of World War Two, and the Holocaust.

Before the incorporation of the Convention, people in the United Kingdom could only complain of unlawful interference with their Convention rights by lodging a petition with the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg. That all changed on 2 October 2000 when Labour’s Human Rights Act 1998 came into force, allowing UK citizens to sue public bodies for violations of their Convention rights in domestic courts.

David Cameron wants to scrap the Human Rights Act and has pledged to leave the European Convention. Human Rights are the bedrock of any democracy. He also wants to scrap consultations, impact assessments, audits, judicial reviews: all essential safeguards for citizens and mechanisms of democracy. 

Government policies are expressed political intentions, regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences.

How policies are justified is increasingly being detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of propaganda to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.

A clear example of an ideologically-driven policy is the Welfare “Reform” Act, which is founded on a stigmatising, Othering narrative: benefit recipients are portrayed as the enemy that battles against fairness and responsibility. The mythological economic “free-rider,” a “burden on the state.” The “reforms” left people in receipt of lifeline benefits much worse off than they were, the word reform has been used as a euphemism for cuts.

Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions  (DWP) has launched a new propaganda scapegoating  advertising campaign encouraging people to phone a hotline if they suspect somebody they know is fraudulently claiming benefits.

I’m sure that serious fraudulent claimants inform their friends and neighbours of their every activity, including holidays, sleeping arrangements, moments of intimacy and all of their benefit payment details, all the time, so that makes sense…

Mark Harper said: “Those who cheat the system need to know we will use everything in our power to stop them stealing money from hardworking taxpayers.”  

Yet we know that there isn’t a real distinction between benefit claimants and hard-working taxpayers, as the Tories would have us believe. Many people on benefits are also in work, but are not paid a sufficient wage to live on. Most people claiming benefits, including disabled people, have worked and contributed income tax previously.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the poorest citizens, including people claiming benefits, pay proportionally more indirect taxes than the wealthiest citizens, such as VAT. The strivers/skivers rhetoric is simply a divert, divide and scapegoating strategy. Growing social inequality generates a political necessity for prejudices.

The real cost of out-of-work benefits is over-estimated in relation to the welfare bill for pensions and in-work benefits such as tax credits and housing benefit, obscuring the increasing role that the British state plays in subsidising the scandalously low wages paid by increasingly exploitative employers, in order to meet a minimum standard of living for the hardworking.

The hardworking taxpayer myth is founded on a false dichotomy, since it is estimated that around 70% of households claim benefits of one kind or another at some point in their lives. In the current climate of poor pay, poor working conditions, job insecurity, and high living costs, the myth of an all pervasive welfare-dependent something for nothing culture is being used to foster prejudice and resentment towards those unfortunate enough to be out of work. It also serves to bolster right-wing justification narratives that are entirely ideologically driven, which are aimed at dismantling the welfare state, while concurrently undermining public support for it.

As the Huff Post’s Asa Bennett points out, there are much bigger costs to the taxpayer that the government are reluctant to discuss.

For example, the tax gap, charting 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.

The National Audit Office found that the Department for Work and Pensions had made £1.4 billion in declared benefit overpayments, an increase of nearly 6%.

Meanwhile, the DWP estimate that between £7.5 billion and £12.3 billion of the six main benefits it administered were left unclaimed in 2009/2010. On top of that. HMRC suggest that several billion pounds more is most in unclaimed tax credits, with childless families missing out on £2.3 billion worth. That’s a grand total of 22.1 billion that ordinary taxpayers aren’t claiming, even though they are entitled to do so. 

Iain Duncan Smith’s Department have wasted an estimated total of £6,221,875,000.00 of taxpayers’ money on the implementation of Universal Credit and private company contracts, amongst other things. (See We can reduce the Welfare Budget by billions: simply get rid of Iain Duncan Smith ). 

Duncan Smith’s claims that his policies are about fairness and saving taxpayers’ money, simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. 

The policies are entirely ideologically-driven. We have a government that uses words like workshy to describe vulnerable social 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. A conservative deputy mayor said, unforgivably, that the “best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.”

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 most economically vulnerable citizens – 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 neoliberal “small state” 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.

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 and public services.

The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing 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

Delingpole conveniently fails to mention that a majority of people needing lifeline welfare support are actually in work. He also fails to mention that while this government were imposing austerity on the poorest citizens, the wealthiest got generous handouts from the Treasury, in the form of tax breaks – hundreds of thousands of pounds each per year. 

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.)

This past four years we have witnessed an extraordinary breakdown of the public/private divide, and a phenomenological intrusion on the part of the state and media into the lives of the poorest members of society. (For example, see: The right-wing moral hobby horse: thrift and self-help, but only for the poor. ) Many people feel obliged to offer endless advice on thrift and self help aimed at persuading poor people to “manage” their poverty better.

Hannah Arendt wrote extensively about totalitarian regimes, in particular Nazism and Stalinism, which she distinguishes from Italian Fascism, because Hitler and Stalin sought to eliminate all restraints upon the power of the State and furthermore, they sought to dominate and control every aspect of everyone’s life. There are parallels here, especially when one considers the continued attempts at dismantling democratic processes and safeguards since the Coalition took office. Many policies are aimed at ‘incentivising’ certain behaviours and perceptions of citizens, using psychology to align them with political and defined economic goals. Citizens are increasingly seen by government as a means to an end.

Further parallels may be found here: Defining features of Fascism and Authoritarianism

Between February 1933 and the start of World War Two, Nazi Germany underwent an economic “recovery” according to the government. Rather like the “recovery” that Osborne and Cameron are currently claiming, which isn’t apparent to most citizens.

This economic miracle, sold to the people of Germany, entailed a huge reduction in unemployment. However, the main reason for this was fear – anyone who was found guilty of being “workshy” (arbeitssheucould then be condemned to the concentration camps that were situated throughout Germany. Hitler frequently referred to the economic miracle, whilst people previously employed in what was the professional class were made to undertake manual labour on the autobahns. People didn’t refuse the downgraded status and pay, or complain, lest they became Arbeitsscheu Reich compulsory labor camp prisoners, and awarded a black triangle badge for their perceived mental inferiority and Otherness.

Behaviour can be controlled by manipulating fear, using a pattern of deprivation. Benefit sanctions, for example, leave “workshy”people without the means to meet their basic survival needs and are applied for periods of weeks or months and up to a maximum of 3 years.

That the government of a so-called first world liberal democracy is so frankly inflicting such grotesquely cruel punishments on some of our most vulnerable citizens is truly horrific. It’s also terrifying that the media and the British public are complicit in this: they fail to recognise that the Social Darwinism inherent in Tory ideological grammar is being communicated through discourses and policies embodying crude behaviour modification techniques and an implicit eugenic subtext .

There were various rationales for the Nazi Aktion T4 programme, which include eugenics, Social Darwinism, racial and mental “hygiene”, cost effectiveness and the welfare budget.

The Aktion T4 programme used the term euthanasia as bureaucratic cover and in the minimal public relations efforts to invest what was essentially eugenics. It is clear that none of the killing was done to alleviate pain or suffering on the part of the victims. Rather, the evidence, including faked death certificates, deception of the victims and of the victims’ families, and widespread use of cremation, indicates the killing was done solely according to the socio-political aims and ideology of the perpetrators. The Nazis believed that the German people needed to be “cleansed” of the so-called racial enemies, but the Aktion T4 programme also included people with disabilities, the poor and the workshy.  

Although many were gassed using carbon monoxide or killed by lethal injection, many more of these people deemed “life unworthy of life” were simply starved to death.

The Holodomor – “extermination by hunger” –  was Joseph Stalin’s intentionaly inflicted famine, designed to destroy  people in the Ukraine seeking independence from his rule. As a result, an estimated 7,000,000 people starved to death. The attitude of the Stalinist regime in 1932–33 was that many of those starving to death were “counterrevolutionaries”idlers” or “thieves” who “fully deserved their fate”. In 2008, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that recognised the Holodomor as a crime against humanity.

Implementing policies that lead to members of vulnerable social groups starving, which is an INTENTIONAL political act, however, is not currently included in the UN Treaty definition of genocide. Nor are disabled people amongst the categories of groups protected by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of  Genocide.

While I am very aware that we need take care not to trivialise the terrible events of Stalinist Russia and 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 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, 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 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.

Economic recession, uncertainty and political systems on the authoritarian -> totalitarian spectrum contribute to shaping the social conditions that seem to trigger Allport’s escalating scale of prejudice.

In the UK, 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. The Coalition clearly have strong authoritarian tendencies, and that is most evident in their anti-democratic and behaviourist approach to policy, human rights, equality, social inclusion and processes of government accountability.

Vulnerable groups are those which our established principles of social justice demand we intervene to help, support and protect. However, the Coalition’s rhetoric is aimed at a deliberate identification of citizens as having inferior behaviour. The poorest citizens are presented as a problem group because of their individual faulty characteristics, and this is intentionally diverting attention from  wider socio-economic and political causes of vulnerability. Individual subjects experiencing hardships have been placed beyond state protection and are now the objects of policies that embody behaviourism, and pathologising, punitive and coercive elements of social control. Vulnerable people are no longer regarded as human subjects, the state is acting upon them, not for or on behalf of them.

People are still debating if Stalin’s Holodomor conforms to a legal definition of genocide, no-one doubts that Hitler’s gas chambers do, though Hitler also killed thousands by starvation.

Our own government have formulated and implemented policies that punish unemployed people for being “workshy” – for failing to meet the never-ending benefit conditionality requirements which entails the use of negative incentives, coercion and behaviour modification to “support” a person into  work –  by withdrawing their lifeline benefit. We also know that sanction targets have led to many people losing lifeline benefits for incoherent and grossly unfair reasons that have nothing to do with an unwillingness to cooperate or work.

Since benefits were originally calculated to meet basic living requirements – food, fuel and shelter – it’s  inconceivable that the government haven’t already considered the consequences of removing people’s means of meeting these fundamental survival needs. Of course, the Tory claim that this draconian measure is to incentivise people to “find work” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when we consider that there isn’t enough work for everyone, and certainly not enough work around that pays an adequate amount to actually survive on.

Furthermore, the Tories “incentivise” the  wealthy by rewarding them with more money (such as the £107,000  tax break that was handed out to each millionaire every year from our own taxes by Osborne). It flies in the face of our conventional and established wisdom that reducing people to starvation and desperation will somehow motivate people to do anything other than to try and survive. (See Maslow’s Hierarchy, and two tragic accounts of the consequences of imposed sanctions.)

Tory austerity is all about ideology – the dehumanisation of the poor, and the destruction of public services and provisions – state infrastructure – and nothing to do with the state of the economy. It’s also about cutting money from the poorest and handing it to the wealthiest. Many economists agree that austerity is damaging to the economy.

There has been a media complicity with irrational and increasingly punitive Tory policies. But why are the public so compliant?

Decades of  research findings in sociology and psychology inform us that as soon as a group can be defined as an outgroup, people will start to view them differently. The very act of demarcating groups begins a process of ostracisation.

As well as the political and social definitions of others, there also exists deeper, largely unconscious beliefs that may have even more profound and insidious effects. These are related to whether people claiming benefits are even felt to be truly, properly human in the same way that “we” are.

This is called infrahumanisation. Infra means “below”, as in below or less than fully human. The term was coined by a researcher at the University of Louvain called Jacque-Philippe Leyens to distinguish this form of dehumanisation from the more extreme kind associated with genocide.

However, I don’t regard one form of dehumanisation as being discrete from another, since studies show consistently that it tends to escalate when social prejudice increases. It’s a process involving accumulation.

According to infrahumanisation theory, the denial of uniquely human emotions to the outgroup is reflective of a tacit belief that they are less human than the ingroup.

Poor people, homeless people, drug addicts and welfare claimants are the frequently outgrouped. It is these most stigmatised groups that people have the most trouble imagining having the same uniquely human qualities as the rest of us. This removes the “infrahumanised” group from the bonds, moral protection and obligations of our community, because outgrouping de-empathises us.

This would explain why some people attempt to justify the cuts, which clearly fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable. This is probably  why fighting the austerity cuts is much more difficult than simply fighting myths and political propaganda. I think the government are very aware of the infrahumanisation tendency amongst social groups and are manipulating it, because growing social inequality generates a political necessity for social prejudices to use as justification narratives.

During a debate in the House of Lords, Freud described the changing number of disabled people likely to receive the employment and support allowance as a bulge of, effectively, stock”. After an outraged response, this was actually transcribed by Hansard as “stopped”, rendering the sentence meaningless.  He is not the only person in the Department for Work and Pensions who uses this term. The  website describes disabled people entering the government’s work programme for between three and six months as 3/6Mth stock.

This infrahumanised stock are a source of profit for the companies running the programme. The Department’s delivery plan recommends using  credit reference agency data to cleanse the stock of fraud and error.

The linguistic downgrading of human life requires dehumanising metaphors: a dehumanising socio-political system using a dehumanising language, and it is becoming familiar and pervasive: it has seeped almost unnoticed into our lives.

Until someone like Freud or Mellins pushes our boundaries of decency a little too far. Then we suddenly see it, and wonder how such prejudiced and discriminatory comments could be deemed acceptable and how anyone could possibly think they would get away with such blatantly offensive rhetoric without being challenged. It’s because they have got away with less blatantly offensive comments previously: it’s just that they pushed more gently and so we didn’t see.

It’s also the case that the government distorts people’s perceptions of the  aims of their policies by using techniques of neutralisation. An example of this method of normalising prejudice is the use of the words “incentivise” and “help” in the context of benefit sanctions, which as we know are intentionally extremely punitive, and people have died as a consequence of having their lifeline benefit withdrawn.

As Allport’s scale of prejudice indicates, hate speech and incitement to genocide start from often subliminal expressions of prejudice and subtle dehumanisation, which escalate. Germany didn’t wake up one morning to find Hitler had arranged the murder of millions of people. It happened, as many knew it would, and was happening whilst they knew about it. And many opposed it, too.

The dignity and equal worth of every human being is the axiom of international human rights. International law condemns statements which deny the equality of all human beings.

As a so-called civilised society, so should we.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone