Tag: Meritocracy myth

Nudge and neoliberalism

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

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

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

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

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

What could possibly go right? 

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

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

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

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

Image result for @LanceUlanoff on trickle down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bootstraps

Related

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

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

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

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

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


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The Poverty of Responsibility and the Politics of Blame

 

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Government consultation on measuring child poverty. So, what’s that about?

The Government are currently developing “better measures of child poverty” to provide a “more accurate reflection of the reality of child poverty.” According to the Tory-led Coalition, poverty isn’t caused by a lack of income. The Coalition have conducted a perfunctory consultation that did little more than provide a Conservative ideological framework to catch carefully calculated, subliminally-shaped public responses.

This framework was pre-fabricated by the strange déjà vu musings of Charles Murray, the American sociologist that exhumed social Darwinism and gave the bones of it originally to Bush and Thatcher to re-cast. Murray’s culture of poverty theory popularised notions that poverty is caused by an individual’s personal deficits; 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, poor character and level of abilities.

Of course, this perspective also assumes that the opposite is true: wealthy and “successful” people are so because they are more talented, motivated and less lazy, and are thus more deserving. Just like the widely discredited social Darwinism of the Victorian era, proposed by the likes of Conservative sociologist Herbert Spencer, (who originally coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and not Darwin, as is widely held) these resurrected ideas have a considerable degree of popularity in upper-class and elite Conservative circles, where such perspectives provide a justification for extensive privilege. In addition, poor communities are seen as socialising environments where values such as fatalism are transmitted from generation to “workshy” generation.

Perhaps that’s why Thatcher destroyed so many communities: in a bid to drive her own demon out. It was invoked by a traditional Tory ritual of blame. Political responsibility was sacrificed, and that’s also a traditional Tory ritual.

According to traditionalist sociologists Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore, not only is poverty a reflection of one’s lack of talents, but inequality is necessary and functional for society. Some positions are socially more important (or functional) than others. Such important positions usually require deferred gratification – sacrifices – to be attained: surgeons need long years of education and dedication to finally practice their crafts. Therefore, it is legitimate that those who make such sacrifices be rewarded with money, power and prestige. Such rewards are offered to motivate the best and brightest to aim for such positions. The poor are poor because they are less intelligent, talented, driven, innovative, motivated, self-restrained and hard working, according to the right-wing pseudomeritocratic narrative. 

Of course we know from psychological studies that the “brightest and best” are often driven by greed, hunger for power and status: narcissism and psychopathic ambitions, and that the genuinely brightest and best are very often less well financially rewarded for more virtuous and intelligent behaviours.

The salary/pay differences between nurses and footballers is a good example that highlights the myth of meritocracy. We reward good eye and foot coordination skills in footballers and prize them far more highly as a society than we do caring, medical knowledge and health and healing skills in nurses.

How we organise socially (which is shaped considerably within a dominant paradigm of competitive individualism, and a Conservative neoliberal economic framework) and how we endorse and reward behaviours as a society is also a big factor in the distribution of competitive, (as opposed to cooperative) greedy, narcissistic, (as opposed to empathic, collectivist) psychopathic traits in those holding the most financially rewarding positions of power.

Blame-the-victim theories of poverty assume that all individuals think alike independently of their social context and circumstances. They ignore the actual resilience and ingenuity that people in absolute poverty mobilise in order to simply survive. And these theories also ignore the tremendous social obstacles that block people’s path to prosperity, such as war or political and ethnic repression. They ignore, in particular, the crucially significant role that Government decision-making and policy plays in shaping inequalities, and the distribution of wealth.

An overview of the underhanded, not the underclass.

In the consultation, material deprivation was mentioned almost in passing. Iain Duncan Smith memorably said recently that poverty isn’t caused by a lack of money. Oh really? Hmmm…  I suppose if you are stranded on a desert island, then it isn’t, but that’s not applicable here as a line of reasoning, Iain. Although I have seen many impoverished souls amongst the rich, I have yet to see a materially deprived wealthy person. Gosh, I’m surprised you didn’t know that the elite do tend to accomplish avoiding vagabondage and pauperism with aplomb, Iain.

Other “causes” of poverty outlined in the document include “worklessness,” unmanageable debt, poor housing, parental skill level, family stability,  and quality education, substance abuse and addiction … and it’s sounding like a Charles Murray Bell Curve mantra to me. Tory ritualistic chanting again.

Eugenics in a ball gown.

This Tory and almost quaint positivist notion of “cause and effect” – personal and socio-cultural inadequacies cause social inequality and poverty – is teleological (functionalist): poor housing, unmanageable debt, family instability and lack of access to quality education are all outcomes of poverty, not causes. I know this to be true, having worked with families that were experiencing difficulties caused by periods of deprivation and poverty, and I have to report that those sorts of misfortunes happened to people regardless of their social background. (Although I must add that none of the upper class or elite, to my knowledge, have ever required intensive support from social services.)

Yet these ideas have become tacitly accepted socially, politicised vigorously and relentlessly, and given pseudo-credibility in the largely right-wing agendarised media. Inequality in Britain today is now so stark, yet there is remarkably little public concern or anger about poverty. (But plenty of anger about the “feckless” poor.) Indeed, compassion and concern for the poorest in society has declined substantially due to the sustained and increasing prevalence of the view that poverty is largely caused by laziness and is the fault of the individual, and that is also simply a shruggable, unavoidable fact of life. Poverty is caused by the poor. It’s not a generous or an expansive view of human nature, from the Tory ontological camp.

Moreover, much of the British public believes that there are sufficient opportunities to succeed for those who try hard enough, and also that it is the middle class which actually struggles the most, economically. These assumptions are highly Conservative, ideologically, with political implications that limit public support for egalitarianism and extensive wealth redistribution from rich to poor, and stifle empathy and understanding for the victims of poverty. There is also, of course, the fact that many don’t want to think about the issue at all, because it causes discomfort and unease: making poverty visible reminds people on some subliminal level, no matter how much they blame the victim, that poverty could nonetheless happen to anyone. The saying goes that most of us are just a couple of pay cheques away from destitution. To many, this is tacit knowledge, but such misfortune will never happen to them.

Competition is threaded throughout the Conservative neoliberal ideological framework, and the Tories have always been inclined to see society as having a hierarchical organisation and structure. Competitive individualism is an all-pervasive social contagion, and has led to those who have the least feeling that they are competing the most for rapidly disappearing resources. This is why the media propaganda campaigns of the Government have seen success, because the Government, via the media, has tapped into this contagion and constructed convenient scapegoats.

Sick and disabled people have been negatively labelled and stigmatised by the media, and it’s no coincidence that hate crimes directed at this social group have significantly increased. We see the poor who work hating the poor unemployed, we see the poor unemployed hating poor immigrants, and we see people who are poor and ill saying that they deserve more support than others that are also poor and ill.

Yet instead of maintaining divisions, the casualities of this Government’s policies would do better to organise, cooperate and mutually support each other. There’s a few socialist principles to counter the isolating poverty trance that many of us are in danger of succumbing to. We can’t afford to be dazed. “Divide and conquer” as a propaganda strategy has certainly been effective, and whilst the authoritarian diversionary (middle) finger is being pointed in blame at the poor and the vulnerable, the real villains are stealing all of our money, and stripping away our publicly funded services and support programs, and enjoying huge tax cuts and handouts as they go. Poverty and wealth do tend to grow together. It’s no coincidence.

I do not agree with the idea that “worklessness” is the cause of child poverty, or many of the other “causes” proposed in the consultation document. We are in an economic recession, and I do believe the Government has a duty to protect the most vulnerable of its citizens, rather than blaming them for the consequences of Government policies. What has happened instead is Coalition policies have contributed enormously to creating more poverty and are set to continue to do so, at a rapid pace, especially once the rest of the cuts via the Localism Bill, Bedroom Tax and Benefit Cap are implemented from April. Coalition policies have of course generated more money for the wealthy, with the very wealthiest gaining around £107, 000 each per year, for example, whilst austerity targets the poorest disproportionately. That is the cause of poverty: utilising social and economic policies to bring about a hugely unequal, grossly unfair and unmerited redistribution of wealth.

In a time of economic recession, jobs are lost, unemployment rates are rising, (despite what we are being told by Cameron – how can we possibly have the best employment rates since the 1960’s, when we are in the middle of the worst global recession we have seen for many decades?) and businesses are increasingly facing bankruptcy, it is therefore hardly fair to penalise the unemployed. Yet taking money from those who have the least via the “reforms,” sanctions and work fare is the Government’s response to the rising unemployment, and to sickness and disability, too. We know that work fare results in even more job losses, because we know that businesses are inclined to get rid of paid workers and replace them with free labour, which comes funded from the tax payer, and so further increases company profits.

We know that private companies are driven by the profit motive, and that they ride roughshod over human needs. They employ the cheapest (and therefore least qualified and professional) workforce that they can. They provide the cheapest materials, economise and make “efficiency savings” in services they provide.

Add to that the matter of Government targets to “incentivise” businesses through further financial reward – with the political aim of reducing State support for the poorest and most vulnerable – and we have the most corrupt and inhumane profiting from human misery, with private companies such as Atos being encouraged explicitly (contractually and via policies) to inflict misery, and being financially rewarded for inflicting that misery, suffering, sometimes death, and of course, increasing financial hardship and poverty. Companies like Atos and A4E reflect the very worst aspects of “vulture capitalism”. It is the asset-stripping of our public services, selling them off and exploiting people for profit, no matter what the cost is to those people.

Sanctions of up to 3 years – stopping a person’s basic means of survival (benefit covers the cost of food and fuel, with housing benefit covering the other basic survival need – shelter) means that those who cannot find work will quite likely die. That’s a fact. Evidence of this biological fact is well articulated by Abraham Maslow  (see Maslow’s Hierarchy.)  Maslow’s proposition also illuminates clearly why poor people cannot be “incentivised” or “helped” through sanctions and  punishment, or motivated by these methods to find none existent jobs when they are struggling to survive.

When people are struggling to meet their most basic needs, they cannot summon the effort to do anything else. The Government expect us to believe that punishing poor people will somehow cure them of their poverty, although many people who are not claiming a benefit won’t know about the punishment regime in place for the unemployed poor, since the use of words by the Government like “helping” people into work (that isn’t real) is such a big detour from truth, and it makes a completely menacing, sneering mockery of the real meaning of that word.  Ah, those “caring” Conservatives are at it again …

We really need to ask ourselves what kind of Government would steal money from the poorest citizens through “reforming” the system of welfare provision, when we are in recession. Then ask again why there is a desire to redefine poverty in a way that excludes the obvious reason for it: a lack of money. One cannot help but wonder why the Coalition think that poor people need money taken from them to “incentivise” them, but very wealthy people need money giving to them, to “incentivise” them. Where did the money come from that rewarded so well those who do not need it ? Oh yes, I can see now….

A simple truth is that poverty happens because some people are very, very rich. That happens ultimately because of Government policies that create, sustain and extend inequalities. The very wealthy are becoming wealthier, the poor are becoming poorer. This is a consequence of  “vulture capitalism” – at the core of Tory ideology – designed by the opportunism and greed of a few, it is instituted, facilitated and directed by the Tory-led Coalition.  

Welfare provision was paid for by the public, via tax and NI contributions. It is not a “handout.” It is not the Government’s money to cut. That is our provision, paid for by us to support us if and when we need it. It’s the same with the National Health Service. These public services and provisions do not and never did belong to the Government to sell off, make profit from, and strip bare as they have done.

Low wages and low benefit levels, rising unemployment and a high cost of living are major causes of poverty. “Worklessness” is a made up word to imply that the consequences of Government policies are somehow the fault of the victims of traditional Tory prejudices.

It’s a psychological and linguistic attack on the vulnerable – blaming the unemployed for unemployment, and the poor for poverty. Those are a consequence of Coalition policies. The Coalition take money from those who need it most to give away to those who need it least. That causes poverty. The Coalition are creating poverty via the consequences of policies. Occasionally they do admit it, or more likely, slip up with a truth. (It was Steve Webb in this case, in addition to the opposition.)

Bearing in mind we are in a recession, I believe that the way the most vulnerable have been treated is unforgivable, and inhumane, and it also breaches several basic human rights. Poverty is caused by economic policies driven by political prejudice and ideology. Poverty is generated through structural – socio-economic – conditions that some Governments impose on a population. I would therefore like to see acknowledgement of this in the Tory-led  measurement of poverty. It’s time the Coalition took some responsibility for the appalling and miserable conditions and human suffering that they are deliberately imposing on the Citizens that they are meant to serve

Given the Coalition’s significant contribution to the continuing rise in childhood poverty, it’s worth noting their abject failure to meet their obligations to make provision for children at risk from the effects of poverty, because they prefer instead to make provision for those who need it the very least: the already very wealthy.

Signatories (such as the UK, since 1991) of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the most rapidly and widely ratified international human rights treaty in history), are legally obliged to protect children from the adverse effects of economic policies.

The Coalition’s austerity measures, which target the poorest citizens for the greatest proportion of cuts, must surely breach this Convention.

Article 3: (Best interests of the child.) The best interests of children must be the primary concern in making decisions that may affect them. All adults should do what is best for children. When adults make decisions, they should think about how their decisions will affect children. This particularly applies to BUDGET, POLICY AND LAW MAKERS.

That would be the Government.

 The Convention Rights of Children


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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone.

 


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