Tag: Neoliberalism

Cash for Care: nudging doctors to ration healthcare provision

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Today, while everyone is being distracted by the continuing resignations from Theresa May’s disintegrating government, the Conservatives are openly talking among themselves (again) about charging for NHS services. So much for the government’s continued reassurances and promises about UK healthcare continuing to remain ‘free at the point of access.’  

The NHS has never been safe in  Conservatives hands.

Last week I wrote an article about the stealthy creep of rationing of treatments in the NHS, and how gatekeeping has become a watchword within our public services over the past seven years. It’s being driven by the government’s deep affection for neoliberal dogma, the drive for never-ending ‘efficiency savings’ and the Conservatives’ lean, mean austerity machine. Perish the thought that the public may actually need to use the public services that they have funded through their contributions to the Treasury, in good faith. 

One important point I didn’t raise in the article was about how the marketisation of the NHS has given rise to ‘perverse incentives’, which violate the very principles on which the national health service was founded. Neoliberal policies have shifted priorities to developing profitable ‘care markets’ making ‘efficiency’ savings and containing costs, rather than delivering universal health care.

Another shift in emphasis is the “behavioural turn”. It’s politically convenient to claim that people’s behaviours are a major determinant of their health. Some illnesses are undoubtedly related to lifestyle – type two diabetes, for example. But it is difficult to blame individual’s behaviours for type one diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease, and these may happen to people who lead very healthy lifestyles, as well as those who don’t. This ‘behavioural turn’ shifts emphasis from the impact of structural conditions – such as rising inequality and poverty – on public health. It also provides a political justification narrative for cuts to healthcare and welfare provision. (See also The NHS is to hire 300 employment coaches to find patients jobs to “keep them out of hospital”. )

Behavioural economists have claimed that ‘nudge’ presents an effective way to ‘change behaviours’ within the NHS and ‘improve outcomes’ at lower cost than traditional policy tools. Back in 2015, the Nudge Unit were looking for “many potentially fruitful areas in which to use behavioural insight to improve health and health-service efficiency, either by retrofitting existing processes or by designing completely new services most effectively.” ‘Fruitful’ as in lucrative for the part-privatised company, but not so lucrative for the NHS.

Behavioural economists are working for the government and public sector to “harness [public] behaviours to shift and reduce patterns of demand in many public services.” The problem is that human needs arising from illness are not quite the same thing as human behaviours and roles, yet the government are increasingly conflating the two. (See discussion on Talcott Parsons and the ‘sick role’ in this article, for example, along with that on ‘work is a health outcome’.)

Public services are associated with fundamental human rights, which in turn are based on notions of fundamental human need. Addressing basic human needs is fundamental to survival.

As Abraham Maslow concluded, motivation for behaviours is is closely related to fulfilling our basic needs, because if they are not met, then people will simply strive to make up the deficit as a priority. This undermines aspiration and human potential. Fulfilment of psychosocial needs will become a motive for behaviour only as long as basic physiological needs ‘below’ it have been satisfied. Health is a fundamental human need. To paraphrase Maslow, we don’t live by bread alone, unless there is no bread.

Public services are an essential part of developed democracies, they ensure all citizens can meet their basic needs, and therefore, the provision promotes wider social and economic wellbeing and progress.

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Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs

The Nudge Unit had already run a trial in Nottingham, which provided feedback to doctors of the cost of a commonly used discretionary lab test. This prompt retained clinical freedom, and did not ask doctors to order fewer tests – but the number of
tests fell by a third.

anttibiotic resistance

In 2016 the UK government set a target to half ‘inappropriate’ antibiotic prescribing by 2020. The Nudge Unit set out to “improve prescribing in line with government ambitions”. 

Behavioural economists from the Unit claimed that by informing doctors that they are prescribing more antibiotics relative to 80 per cent of their peers, they are reducing the number of ‘unnecessary’ prescriptions by 3.3 per cent (more than 73,000 prescriptions) – helping to address what the Chief Medical Officer has identified as perhaps the greatest medical threat of our age – antibiotic resistance. 

Between 2014 and 2015, the Behavioural Insights Team sent letters to 800 GP practices, telling them that other practices were recommending the use of antibiotics in fewer cases. (There is no evidence presented to determine if this was actually true, and judging by the template letter, it’s highly unlikely that it was true.)

The nudge method employed is called ‘social norming’, which operate as a kind of community enforcement, as norms are unwritten rules that define ‘appropriate’ behaviours for social groups. We tend to conform to the expectations of others. Changing perceptions of norms alters people’s expectations and behaviour.

Understanding norms provides a key to understanding social influence in general and conformity in particular. The Conservatives have traditionally placed a significant emphasis on social conformity.

There are ‘hotspots’ where more antibiotics are prescribed. However, the fact that these places tend to be some of the most deprived areas of the country strongly hints that there are underlying socioeconomic factors at play that cannot be solved with a nudge or prod. Research indicates that community socioeconomic variables may play a significant role in sepsis-attributable mortality, for example.

Social problems such as poverty and inequalities in health arise because of unequal distributions of wealth and power, therefore these problems require solutions involving  addressing socioeconomic inequality. As it is, the government is unprepared to spend public funds on public services to redistribute resources. 

The behavioural study did not include any consideration of socioeconomic variables on rates or severity of infection, or types of infection. 

The idea that ‘changing the prescribing habits in hospitals’ and GP surgeries will impact on antibiotic resistance is based on an assumption that doctors over prescribe antibiotics in the first place. There is no evidence that this is the case, and it’s very worrying that anyone would think that targeting doctors with behaviourally-based remedies will address antibiotic resistance and assure us, at the same time, that antibiotics are actually prescribed when appropriate, and tailored, ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the patient, rather than being prescribed according to arbitrary percentage norms distributed by behavioural economists.

The trials did not include sufficient data regarding clinical detail or diagnostic uncertainty that might justify antibiotic prescribing in individual cases.

One of the nudge unit team’s key aims is to design policies which reduce costs. They say: “The solution to the problem of AMR is not just to produce new and better drugs – that takes time, and a great deal of money. We must also reduce our use of antibiotics when they are not needed. Sadly, it seems that they are used unnecessarily twenty percent of the time in the UK”.

The various Nudge Unit reports on behavioural strategies that target doctors don’t mention any follow-up research to ensure that the reduction in antibiotic prescriptions did not correlate with an increase in the severity of infections or poor outcomes for patients. In fact one report highlighted that those who were admitted to hospital because their condition deteriorated were excluded from the trial, as they no longer met the inclusion criteria. That effectively means that any adverse consequences for patients who were not given antibiotic treatment was not reported. And that matters.

The authors say “We as the authors debated at length as to whether we should emphasise the fact that 80% of the prescriptions are being used in necessary cases.” 

There is no indication of how ‘necessary cases’ are determined, and more to the point, who determines what is a ‘necessary case’ for antibiotic treatment. Furthermore, the report uses some troubling language, for example, doctors prescribing antibiotics ‘above average’ were referred to more than once as the “worst offenders.” However, as I’ve already touched on, patients needs may well vary depending on a range of variables, such as the socioeconomic conditions of their community, and of course, complex individual comorbidities, which may not be mentioned in full when doctors write up the account for the prescription.

Sepsis, which may arise from any kind of infection is notoriously difficult to diagnose. It is insidious and can advance very rapidly.  It’s even more difficult to determine when a patient has other conditions. For example, sepsis can arise when someone has flu. That happened to me, when I had developed pneumonia without realising that I had. It’s standard practice for paramedics to administer a broad spectrum antibiotic and intravenous fluids to treat suspected sepsis and septic shock. This can often save lives. Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and antibiotic treatment for survival.

Once the causative agent for the infection is found, the IV antibiotics may then be tailored to treat it. The wait without any treatment until a firm diagnosis is potentially life-threatening. But the biochemical tests, such as CRP, and X-rays take time. 

Treatment guidelines call for the administration of broad-spectrum antibiotics within the first hour following suspicion of septic shock. Prompt antimicrobial therapy is important, as risk of dying increases by approximately 10% for every hour of delay in receiving antibiotics. This time constraint does not allow the culture, identification, and testing for antibiotic sensitivity of the specific microorganism responsible for the infection. Therefore, combination antimicrobial therapy, which covers a wide range of potential causative organisms, is tied to better ‘outcomes’. 

In the trial, behavioural economists referred to medical notes, and if there is no diagnosis, the necessity of the prescription is then questioned. Knowledge of complex medical histories may also influence doctors’ decisions, and this may not have been mentioned on medical record. A cough and breathlessness is a common symptom influenza. However, a patient with a condition that compromises their immunity, or someone who needs immune suppressants, for example, is rather more at risk of developing bacterial pneumonia than others, and someone with COPD or asthma is also at increased risk.  

If a person dies because treatment was not given promptly in high suspicion cases of severe infection and sepsis, who is to be held accountable, especially in a political context where treatments are being rationed and prescriptions are being increasingly policed?

It’s also worth bearing in mind that massive doses of antibiotics are added to livestock feed as a preventative measure and to promote growth before the animals are slaughtered and enter the food chain. Using antibiotics during the production of meat has been heavily criticised by physicians and scientists, as well as animal activists. The pharmaceutical industry is making billions annually from antibiotics fed to livestock, which highlights the perverse incentives of the profit motive and potentially catastrophic impact on humans. It is estimated that between 70 – 80 percent of the total of antibiotics used around the world are used within the animal farming and food industry. No-one is nudging the culprits. 

The potential threat to human health resulting from inappropriate, profit seeking antibiotic use in food animals is significant, as pathogenic-resistant organisms propagated in these livestock are poised to enter the food supply and could be widely disseminated in food products.

Antibiotics used on farms can spill over into the surrounding environment, for instance through water run-off and slurry, according to a report from the UN’s environment body, last year, with the potential to create resistance to the drugs across a wide area.

In 2013, researchers showed that people who simply lived near pig farms or crop fields fertilized with pig manure are 30% more likely to become infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria.

Cash for care – rationing referrals to hospital consultants and diagnostic testing

It was announced in April this year that General Practitioners (GPs) across England will be able to “better manage” hospital referrals with a “digital traffic light system” developed by the Downing Street policy wonks. This nudge is designed to target the ‘referral behaviours’ of GPs.

GPs are being offered cash payments as an ‘incentive’ to not refer patients to hospitals – including cancer patients – according to an investigation by Pulse, a website for GPs. 

Furthermore, a leaked letter sent by NHS to England to Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and seen by Pulse magazine last year, asks that all family doctors in England to seek approval from a medical panel for all non-urgent hospital referrals.  

A “clinical peer review of all referrals from general practice by September 2017”, will be required, the letter said. 

To ‘incentivise’ the scheme, the letter said that there will be “significant additional funding” for commissioners that establish peer-led policing schemes. It added that it could reduce hospital referral rates by up to by 30 per cent. NHS England said that they want to introduce the “peer review scheme” whereby GPs check the referrals of one another to ensure they are ‘appropriate’. However, experts warn this increasingly Kafkaesque layer of bureaucracy could lead to more problems and possible conflict with patients’ safety and standard of care. 

In a trial of the nudge scheme, four NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) have been using “profit share” initiatives to ration care, to help them ‘operate within their budgets’. Clinical Commissioning Groups hold the budget for the NHS locally and decide which services are provided for patients. 

Through this scheme, GPs are told they will receive up to half of the money that is saved by fewer patients going to hospitals for tests and treatments.

So to clarify, surgeries are being offered financial ‘incentives’ for not sending patients to hospital to save money, that is then reinvested in part to implement further rationing of healthcare. The move has been widely condemned as a “dereliction of duty” by the community of medical experts and professionals. Referrals to consultants often involve important diagnostic procedures, therefore there is often no way of knowing for sure in advance of the referral whether or not it is “warranted”.

The NHS has had ‘referral management centres’ in place for many years.  However, last year they were at the epicentre of a scandal when it was revealed that the use of these centres has increased 10-fold over recent years. Furthermore, the centres are privately run and extremely expensive to employ, diverting funds that could simply be spent on patient care.

Moreover, those who were reviewing the referrals were also found to have varying levels of clinical knowledge, and so were not always able to correctly identify which referrals were ‘necessary’. They were also extremely inefficient as patients were forced to wait a long time for appointments. 

The Pulse investigation into referral incentive schemes being run by NHS clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) across England found some regions offering GPs as much as 50 per cent of any savings they can make. The “profit-share” arrangements mean practices stand to benefit financially by not sending patients for treatment or to see a specialist.

Hospitals are paid for operations and other activity, so by sending patients to cheaper services run by GP practices – such as diabetes and pulmonary clinics – or by keeping them out of hospital altogether, practices can increase the size of savings. GPs are not paid per procedure. Rather, they receive a single payment when each patient is registered with them. 

Currently, when doctors are referring patients for appointments with hospital consultants, the nudge – in the form of a “Capacity Alert System” – operates by displaying a red light next to hospitals with lengthy waiting times, and a green light next to those with more availability, on the system. 

The system underwent two trials in north-east and south-west London over the winter. During these pilots the number of referrals made to overburdened hospitals was reduced by 40%, while those made to hospitals with ‘spare capacity’ rose by 14%, according to NHS England. There was no comment made regarding the impacts of the scheme on patients’ health.

GP leaders have also said it is “insulting” to suggest doctors are sending patients to hospital arbitrarily, and raise significant conflicts of interest.

“Cash incentives based on how many referrals GPs make have no place in the NHS, and frankly, it is insulting to suggest otherwise,” said Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs.

Of course, it’s important to take measures to ensure that GP referrals are appropriate and high-quality, but payments to reduce referrals would fly in the face of this, and erode the trust our patients have in us to do what is best for them and their health.” 

The NHS has been squeezed for increasingly drastic ‘efficiency savings’ in the past eight years. It’s absurd, however, that a huge amount of money is being spent on restricting access to healthcare, rather than on simply adequately funding healthcare provision.

Dr Peter Swinyard, chair of the Family Doctor Association, said the profit-share schemes were “bizarre”, adding: “From a patient perspective, it means GPs are paid to not look after them.

“It’s a serious dereliction of duty, influenced by CCGs trying to balance their books.”

Meanwhile, NHS Barnsley CCG has identified a £1.4m funding pot to pay its practices if they achieve a reduction in referrals to specialties, including cardiology, pancreatic surgery, and trauma and orthopaedics.

The CCG said the 10 per cent target was “ambitious but achievable”.

Last year it was discovered that the NHS has to spend £1.5 billion in legal costs when patients don’t get what the standard of care expected and pay for from their healthcare providers. In 2015/16, there was a 27% increase in the number of claims and a 72% increase in legal cost, which amounted to £1.5 billion.  With the amount of money that the NHS is spending on legal costs for medical blunders, the NHS could have paid for the training of more than 6,000 doctors. Or eased the rationing of essential healthcare provision.

The purpose of the NHS has been grotesquely distorted: it was never intended to be a bureaucratic gatekeeping exercise that rations healthcare. The purpose of all public services is to provide a public service, not ration provision. Such is the irrationality of the government’s ‘market place’ and ‘profit over human need’ narrative. 

Dr Eric Watts, a consultant haematologist for the NHS, says that the British government couldn’t care less about the fall of the NHS. He said, “This is a triumph of secrecy and implacable lack of care about the NHS by a Government determined to watch it fail then fall.” 

One CCG told Pulse“Ensuring treatment is based on the best clinical evidence and improving historical variation in access is essential for us locally.

“Financially, it is an effective use of local resources which will improve patient experience and outcomes and increase investment in primary care in line with the Five Year Forward View commitments.” Those ‘commitments’ are the increasing implementation of cuts to healthcare provision and funding.

Cuts to care may well improve financial ‘management’ but it cannot be claimed that healthcare rationing “improves health outcomes” for patients. That flies in the face of rationality.

NHS England also said last year that funding will be available for CCGs to start “peer review schemes”, where GPs police each other – checking that their colleagues are referring ‘appropriately’, but it is not clear what it thinks about direct payments linked to cutting referrals.

The “Cash for Cuts” investigation, by GP publication Pulse, asked all 207 CCGs in England about their processes for cutting referrals. Of the 180 who responded, 24 per cent had some kind of incentive scheme aimed at lowering the numbers of referrals. 

This included payments for getting GPs to “peer review” each other’s referrals or other strategies. 

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, from the British Medical Association (BMA) has  also criticised the nudge scheme. He says “It’s a blunt instrument which is not sensitive to the needs of the patient and is delaying patient care. 

“It has become totally mechanistic. It’s either administrative or not necessary for the patient. It’s completely unacceptable. Performance seems to be related to blocking referrals rather than patient care.”

The CCGs have defended the schemes, saying that at the time they were pushed through, the NHS was struggling through the worst winter ever in its history and had not been able to hit target waiting times since 2015. The CCGs have said that the scheme is only to help reducing ‘unnecessary referrals’ and therefore improve outcomes for ‘genuine patients’, and not to reduce numbers overall. Who decides which patients are ‘genuine’, and on what criteria? 

Dr Dean Eggitt, who is the British Medical Association’s GP representative for Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham and Sheffield, also disagrees with the scheme. 

“The scheme is unsafe and needs to be reviewed urgently,” he said. 

The BMA’s GP committee have said that it had raised concerns nationally where CCGs have set an “arbitrary target” for reducing referrals. 

Before Christmas, Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, announced that he wanted hospitals to find another £300m in savings on basic items like surgical gloves and bandages, and a long-awaited pay rise for nurses is contingent on staff boosting “productivity”.  

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Patients must never have their access to necessary care restricted  – we would expect local clinical commissioning groups and NHS England to intervene immediately if this were the case.” 

I’ve asked NHS England whether it would be reviewing cases where GPs stand to profit financially for not referring patients, along with others, but I have had no response at time of this publication. 

The NHS was founded on the principle of free and open access to healthcare provision for everyone. The nudge schemes I’ve outlined have introduced ‘perverse incentives’ that prompt GPs to ration health care. I have argued elsewhere on many occasions that nudge and the discipline of behavioural economics more generally is technocratic prop for a failing  political and socioeconomic system of organisation – neoliberalism. Rather than review the failures of increasing privatisation and ‘competition’, the government chose to deny them, applying increasingly irrational ‘solutions’ to the logical gaps in their ‘marketplace’ dogma. 

Yet it is blindingly clear that citizens needs and their human rights are being increasingly sidestepped by the absolute prioritisation of the private profit incentive. 

Nudge isn’t about ‘economics theory and practice adapting to human decision making’, as is widely claimed. It isn’t about remedying ‘cognitive biases’. It isn’t about people making ‘flawed decisions’.

It’s about holding citizens responsible for the problems created by a flawed socioeconomic model. It’s about a limited view of human behaviours and potential, because it frames the poorest citizens in an increasingly unequal society as ‘failed entrepreneurs’. Those members of the public who need to access public services are increasingly being portrayed as an economic ‘burden’. As such, nudge places limitations on and replaces genuine problem-solving approaches to public policy.

Nudge is about authoritarian governments using a technocratic prop to adapt human perceptions, behaviours and expectations, aligning them to accommodate inevitable  catastrophic social outcomes. These outcomes are symptomatic of the failings and lack of rational insights of wealthy and powerful neoliberal ideologues, who are determined to dismantle our public services. Without the consent of the majority of citizens. 

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The NHS was never safe in his hands. The company he keeps has made sure of that.

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Labour challenge government about ‘shocking’ rise in coroner warnings over NHS patient deaths

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Coroners have a statutory duty to make reports to a person, organisation, local authority or government department or agency where the coroner believes that action should be taken to prevent future deaths. 

The Labour Party, who compiled the figures, has said the increase is due to the government’s austerity policies. Shadow health minister Justin Madders responded to the finding, saying: “This shocking rise in austerity-related deaths in the NHS shows yet again the devastating impact of Tory underfunding. Jeremy Hunt has claimed patient safety as his watchword, yet the truth is that more deaths are being blamed on a lack of resources in the NHS.

If the government doesn’t provide the health service with the funding it needs there is a real danger that services just become unsafe for patients. Ministers must take action now and give the NHS the resources it needs to keep patients safe.”

There were 42 ‘prevention of future death’ reports (PFDs) relating to issues such as lack of beds, staff shortages and insufficiently trained agency staff in 2016 compared with 30 in 2013. 

Within the 42 PFDs relating to lack of resources, eight were specifically concerned with resourcing of mental health services, double the number from 2013. Labour said the resourcing of mental health services was of particular concern, with deaths related to issues including the lack of mental health in-patient beds or shortages of trained staff.

In 2017, a damning PFD sent to the Department of Health after the death of Christopher Fairhurst in December 2016 said a shortage of GPs put patients at risk and placed unmanageable workloads upon those GPs who were in post. 

At the inquest into Christopher’s death, the court heard that the GP practice where Christopher was a patient serves 14,000 to 15,000 patients, but has been operating for the past few years with four or five GPs. Coroner Lisa Hamshi recorded a conclusion of misadventure, but Fairhurst’s family claimed he was often ‘twentieth in the queue’ when he tried to book a GP appointment.

The coroner claimed the ‘knock-on effect’ of the NHS funding crisis is seen ‘day in and day out’ in courts like hers. Hamshi said that she was satisfied with the care provided by doctors at Edenfield Road Surgery, but said she was concerned about the strain on surgeries – and a critical shortage of GPs across the country.

A Guardian investigation published in March found that coroners in England and Wales served PFDs relating to 271 mental health patients between 2012 and 2017. The NHS ombudsman also warned that mental health patients are suffering serious harm, and in some cases dying, because of “serious failings” in their treatment. 

In a report analysing more than 200 complaints about NHS mental health care, John  Behrens – the ombudsman – highlighted “failings that have occurred, and continue to occur, in specialist mental health services in England, and the devastating toll this takes on patients and their families”.

His findings came just two weeks after the Guardian revealed that coroners had issued NHS providers of care with legal warning notices over 271 deaths of mental health patients that occurred in England and Wales between 2012 and 2017 following failings in the treatment they had provided.

The report identified five “common failings” by mental health trusts that can lead to patients suffering distress or harm or dying avoidably. They include inadequate assessment of the patient’s risk of suffering harm or committing suicide and poor communication between health professionals and the patient or their family.

The report is a dossier of detailed but anonymous cases which, in some cases, led the ombudsman to conclude that patients were subjected to care so poor that it was “injustice [that was] shocking and tragic”. The failings illustrate how far the NHS has to go if it is to improve care in the dramatic way that ministers and health service bosses have promised in recent years.  

For example, a Ms J died after she had a life-threatening reaction, called neuroleptic malignant syndrome (NMS), to being prescribed an antipsychotic drug for a psychotic episode she was having. Doctors dismissed the physical symptoms of her condition.

“Had doctors identified NMS, it is likely that Ms J would have received the appropriate treatment and survived. As such, we concluded that Ms J’s death was avoidable,” the report said. Her death illustrated “the human cost of service failures”, Behrens said.

In another case, a mental health professional decided that a Mr O was suffering from an episode of psychosis for the first time. However, the worker breached National Institute of Health and Care Excellence guidelines by not assessing the patient for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. The NHS trust’s risk assessment “was too brief and inadequate”, the report said.

Among the mental health-related deaths attributed to resource issues in 2016 was that of Wendy Telfer, 44, who died after taking an overdose. The PFD to Royal Devon and Exeter NHS foundation trust said: “It is accepted that the problem of psychiatric in-patient beds is a national one, but on this occasion, had a bed been available when needed for Wendy, her death is likely to have been avoided.”

A 2017 PFD sent to the Department of Health after the death of Christopher Fairhurst in December 2016 said a shortage of GPs put patients at risk and placed unmanageable workloads upon those GPs who were in post.

The peak month in 2016 for deaths identified by coroners as being linked to a lack of resources – whether mental health-related or otherwise – was December, with eight. The NHS is always most overstretched in winter, with staff shortages and high bed occupancy rates.

Regular winter crises are a consequence of increased demand for services without a corresponding increase in funding. In four weeks in the run-up to Christmas 2016, 50 of the 152 English trusts were at the highest or second-highest level of pressure, according to a Nuffield Trust analysis commissioned by the BBC.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said every preventable death was a tragedy. He said: “When coroners recommend specific steps to prevent future tragedy we expect NHS bodies to act without delay. 

“As well as making mental health services a personal priority, both the prime minister and the secretary of state have committed to a long-term plan with a sustainable multi-year settlement for the NHS, which will be agreed with NHS leaders, clinicians and health experts.”

That clearly isn’t adequate.

Mental health is an integral and essential component of health. Those groups with high rates of socioeconomic deprivation also tend to have the highest need for mental health care, but the lowest access to it.

People with mental illnesses are also vulnerable to abuse of their human rights. Scarcity of available resources and inequities in their distribution pose major obstacles to better mental health. 

Research by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) found that the income of mental health trusts across the UK had fallen since 2011, after taking account of inflation.  

In England, 62% of mental health trusts reported a lower income at the end of 2016-17 than they had in 2011-12. Only one trust saw their funding rise in all five financial years, according to official figures.

The RCP reports that the total amount of income that mental health trusts received in 2016-17 was £11.829bn – £105m less than in 2011-12 at today’s prices. 

Parity of esteem – the requirement to treat mental and physical health equally – was enshrined in law in 2012 and became part of the NHS Constitution in 2015. Yet ddespite legislating for parity of esteem, the government has failed to adequately fund it. The lack of resources is exacerbated by the fact that mental health funding is not ring-fenced and can be diverted by the NHS to plug gaps in other areas.

“It is totally unacceptable that when more and more people are coming forward with mental health problems, trusts are receiving less investment than they did, in some cases, seven years ago,” said RCP president Professor Wendy Burn.

It’s totally unacceptable that a government which has contributed to a rise in mental ill health in the first place by designing policies that widen inequalities, implementing cuts to public services that are both avoidable and immoral, continues in failing to recognise the psychological costs of austerity for individuals, communities and wider society.

Careless cuts cost lives.

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The interdependence of the PR industry and neoliberal Conservative governments

The PR industry arose to promote and protect private interests in neoliberal economies

Public Relations (PR) and propaganda are key mechanisms by which power and influence are won (and lost). PR consultancies are also behind significant victories on behalf of big business, resulting in a tilted, biased market. PR emerged as a distinct discipline as a result of threats to the interests of business and government along with a ‘promotional culture’. 

Evidence indicates that PR arose rapidly in tandem with neoliberal policies. Those countries with the most marked privatisation and deregulation from the 1980s onwards – the US, the UK and Japan – had the largest PR industries. By contrast, countries such as France and Germany, which retained significant elements of consensus-based policies and state investment in industry, have much smaller PR industries. The global PR industry is dominated by a few big players, most of which are US or UK in origin and
ownership. 

Relative size of PR agencies in Europe, the US and Japan:

PR US Japan Eu

The expansion and power of Trans National Corporations (TNCs) relative to nation states has been a key spur to the development of communications conglomerates, which provide a full range of ‘promotional’ services and aspire to a global reach.  TNCs’ influence over the policy making process by entering an international market place has also led to a globalising of  the PR industry.

Multinational corporations, particularly in the US, and increasingly in the UK, look for global PR agencies who can operate adaptably and locally, wherever they are needed. 

The consensus in British politics was based on a compromise between organised labour and capital, which was founded on the post war 1945 settlement. This did secure real and significant democratic advances for ordinary citizens in the shape of the NHS, the welfare state, universal education, significant public ownership of utilities and heavy industry and, partly as a result, some amelioration of inequality in wealth distribution.

The end of the consensus in British politics during the New Right era ushered in more competitive politics in which traditions were displaced by a neoliberal tilt to the market in government policy. The crisis of the consensus shifted decisively with the 1979 election of Margaret Thatcher’s government which favoured the role and ‘right’ of employers to ‘manage’, with government rolling back state mediation.  

During the Thatcher era, changes in the communication strategies of the nationalised industries were crucial to the changed relationships between management and workers.  Controversial government actions and policies also led to a vast increase in PR spending by governments and by corporations in their attempts to influence government policy.

Fundamental to this is the relationship between PR, lobbying, and neoliberalism, (particularly the privatisation of national assets and the deregulation of business and service provision in state institutions). There are several parts to this relationship which are interrelated and in some respects, mutually reinforcing. These include:

Lobbying and preparation for deregulation,
• Spending on privatisation by government/nationalised industries,
• Spending by newly privatised companies,
• Spending on promotion by industries and professions following
deregulation,
• Increased spending on PR in the new business climate created by the
deregulation of the City. 

Conservative policies could not work without the PR industry and the PR industry would not have developed in the spectacular way it did without consecutive Conservative governments. The British privatisations of the 1980s were instrumental in the rapid  expansion of the PR industry. Once industries are privatised, PR, corporate identity consultants and advertising are needed to promote the private interests of the companies and as a part of their strategic armoury to create positive public images of them. By the 1990s, accountancy firms also routinely employed lobbying firms.

Lobbying increased deregulation which increased PR spending by encouraging financial institutions to market themselves, and by ‘selling’ the marketing. Nowadays there are no matters for business, government or private interest pressure groups that have not been first addressed by promotional professionals, which has made, in turn, further contribution to shaping economic-political life and profoundly reduced the quality of our democracy. 

PR consultancy and neoliberal ideology are intimately connected, the role of PR has facilitated an institutional corruption in British governance.

The rise of political branding and marketing, where the primary development involves the way political candidates, parties, government, lobbyists and groups have borrowed communication techniques from the private sector in the attempt to achieve
strategic objectives like gaining votes, driving public opinion or influencing legislation, is generally regarded to be an Americanisation of campaigning in the UK.

However, the identifiable practices like negative advertising, personalised politics, and high pre-election campaign expenditures are generally more about maintaining a neoliberal status quo, and these methods are a ‘whatever it takes’ approach that are subsequently exported in a pre-packaged box of persuasion techniques to other countries. Political identities are being constructed rather than given, policies are presented on showroom dummies, dressed up in techniques of persuasion. Yet there is evidence to suggest that overexposure to this kind of window dressing and made over political coverage has contributed towards widespread political alienation.

Image result for pr and democracy

The rise of political marketing with its techniques of ‘spin’, selling and persuasion may have somewhat undermined the credibility of political leaders and institutions,  with the elevation of style over content and image over substance, along with a concomitant  ‘brand and package’ pack mentality political journalism, ultimately leading to hardened public cynicism. We are after all, inhabiting a world dominated by PR operations that leave little place for objective reporting. Every message that the public receives is “sponsored” by someone trying to sell us something – be it a product, a service, a candidate, a government or a legislative act.

The content of the messages is calculated to generate superficial and shallow emotive responses rather than inspiring deliberative, rational and critical thinking. 

It wouldn’t be such a stretch to imagine that, in addition to the reductionist and glib sloganisation of politics, the normalised use of  emotive, negative and ‘attack’ Conservative political advertising may in fact demobilise the electorate, too.

The Conservatives in the ‘war room’ – a case study

The UK Policy Group is the UK branch of a notorious US political organisation – Definers Public Affairs – which has worked for Donald Trump’s administration and has aggressively targeted his critics. The company boasts: “What sets us apart is our focus on political-style research, war room media monitoring, political due diligence and rapid response communications.

“We help our clients navigate public affairs challenges, influence media narratives and make informed decisions to disrupt crowded markets.

“The global political, policy and corporate communications landscapes are evolving rapidly. Decision makers need high quality research to make informed decisions and need relevant content to drive the court of public opinion and provide context to shape decisions by policymakers.

“With affiliates in Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley, UK Policy Group employs some of the best communicators, researchers and media analysts as part of our team.”

The Conservatives have outsourced their “research” to the UK Policy Group, privatising their dirt digging and smear campaigns. 

US lobbying firm Definers Public Affairs was founded by Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign manager, Matt Rhoades and former Republican National Committee research director Joe Pounder. Rhoades and Pounder are also directors of UK Policy Group.

Definers made headlines in December 2017 when it was paid US$120,000 in a no-bid contract by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to build up dossiers of compromising information on “resistance figures”, opposed to the policy agenda of Scott Pruitt, and Donald Trump, the man who appointed him. Definers cancelled the contract in short order after its activities were exposed. 

UK Policy Group was originally called, and registered with Companies House as, ‘UK Rising’. Rhoades and Pounder are co-founders of America Rising, a political action committee (PAC), that specialises in helping [Republican] party candidates and Conservative groups find damaging information on political rivals. Both companies “craft convincing narratives and focused messaging”.

The expansion by Definers Public Affairs came at a time when US lobbying firms were eyeing UK expansion in anticipation of flood of Brexit-related work.

UK Policy Group’s website unambiguously states it works for ‘corporate clients’, however, not a single one of those running the company has a significant private sector background. In fact, each of the five individuals standing alongside Pounder and Rhoades is intimately connected with the Conservative Party.

Former government officials are advising this highly controversial company. The UK company’s vice president is Andrew Goodfellow, who was the Conservative Party’s director of policy and research. He specialised in ‘opposition’ research.

James Caldecourt was previously a Political Adviser in the Conservative Research Department, also specialising in ‘opposition’ research, and was part of George Osborne’s team while he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer 2010 — 2015. He has worked on several national election and referendum campaigns in political, policy and operational roles. Louis McMahon worked for two tears for two Conservative government ministers, and previously co-authored a criminal justice report for the Center for Social Justice think tank, founded by Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith MP in 2004.

Ameet Gill, who was the former director of strategy Number 10 and founder of lobbying company Hanbury Strategy, is providing consultancy to the firm. Official documents reveal that David Cameron ’s former director of strategy, Gill, was given permission by parliamentary authorities to accept a contract advising the firm through his political strategy company Hanbury Strategy. Pelham Groom, a company director, was previously head of ‘media monitoring’ for the Conservative Party. Chris Brannigan, Theresa May’s former Director of Government Relations is also a member of the group’s advisory board. Rhiannon Glover is an analyst, formerly, the late duty press officer for the Conservative Party and researcher in the office of Nick Hurd.

The company is also partnered with Trygve Olson, of Viking Strategies, who advised the European People’s Party in the 2009 EU elections and worked as a consultant to the Republican Party in the US.

The company says: “We offer our clients an end-to-end system of research on issues and opponents, monitoring the news cycles, and shaping narratives via rapid rebuttal communications.

UKPG provides our clients with unparalleled campaign-style research as the foundation of driving informed decisions that allow them to shape public opinion, and impact outcomes.”

The company employs people to find damaging information on political rivals. Scrutinising the personal histories, online videos and posts of Labour Party candidates, the company collects dossiers of potential discrediting and smear material to be handed to the Conservative Party. It’s understood that the information is then handed to right-wing websites and newspapers to construct narratives and add a veneer of evidence to negative articles.

The company expansion by US-based company Definers Public Affairs came at a time when US lobbying firms were eyeing UK expansion “in anticipation of flood of Brexit-related work, using their capacity to influence the national news cycle’ and as a ‘master of opposition research”. 

Ian Lavery MP, Labour Party Chair, said: “I am disappointed but not surprised to hear that in an attempt to deflect from their total lack of direction and policy, the Tories are reduced to digging low and dragging British politics through the gutter, in the desperate hope that they may find some salacious morsel.

“This kind of base mudslinging has no place in British democratic debate, and deflects from the real issues facing people today. It is time that Theresa May stops spending money and effort on these tactics and focuses on policies to improve the lives of those who have suffered because of her government’s heartless policies.”

It may be argued that there are communications requirements of modern democracies. However, a representative democracy requires that political communication is dialogic – it flows in both directions between government and people. In fact that is a prerequisite. Instead we witness a manipulative neoliberal monologue from the current administration.

Neoliberal Conservative governments and the PR industry are very closely aligned, each profiting from the other. The condition of the spectacular growth of the PR and lobbying  industry was to facilitate and profit from the marked redistribution of wealth from the poorest citizens to the rich, establishing, elevating and securing the prioritisation of the private interests and power base of the 1% over and above – and at the expense of – public interests.

Image result for pr and democracy chomsky

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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Neoliberalism has failed: Labour’s ideas are the new mainstream – John McDonnell

One of Corbyn’s most important achievements is in extending national debate beyond the limits of neoliberal ideology and challenging the hegemony imposed by Margaret Thatcher. The sell by date of neoliberal dogma was last century, it ought to have expired in Pinochet’s Chile. Yet the Tories continue to flog a dead horse, selling England by the pound, while selling the public very short indeed.

The Tories have frequently shrieked, with vindictive and borderline hysterical relish, that Labour’s pro-social economic policies reflect “fiscal irresponsibility”, but that doesn’t resonate with the government’s calamitous economic record over the past seven years. Nor does it fit with historic facts and empirical accuracy. 

The Labour party were in power when the global crash happened. The recession in 2007/8 in the UK was not one that happened as a direct consequence of Labour’s policies. The seeds of The Great Recession were sown in the 80s and 90s. The global crisis of 2008 was the result of the financialization process: of the massive creation of fictitious financial capital and the hegemony of a reactionary ideology, neoliberalism, which is based on the fatally flawed assumption that markets and humans are self-regulating and efficient. 

The New Right argued that competition and unrestrained selfishness was of benefit to the whole society in capitalist societies. It asserted that as a nation gets wealthier the wealth will “trickle down” to the poorest citizens, because it is invested and spent thereby creating jobs and prosperity. In fact the global financial crisis has demonstrated only too well that financial markets provide opportunities for investment that extend relatively few extra jobs and that feed a precarious type of prosperity that can be obliterated in just a matter of days. 

Labour’s second State of the Economy conference returned to Imperial College in London over the weekend. It confirmed that it is the ideas of the left that are now making the running. Eminent academic economists joined with council and business leaders, and hundreds of ordinary activists to debate and discuss how we can create the economic alternative that is now so urgently needed.

The Labour party has called out the accounting profession, pledging to eradicate poor practices following high-profile corporate collapses. John McDonnell, shadow chancellor, said on Saturday that the collapse of Carillion and a subsequent MP-led investigation into the outsourcing company’s demise had highlighted the “catastrophic failure and inadequacy” of the UK’s regulatory regime, as well as shortcomings in the audit market.

McDonnell said Labour had commissioned an independent review of how Britain’s audit market operates, including how it is policed by regulators. The review will be led by Prem Sikka, a professor of accounting at the University of Sheffield and an outspoken critic of the Big Four audit firms: PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY.

The review will examine whether existing regulatory bodies should be merged, abolished or restructured, and will consider the appropriate level of fines for accounting firms when misconduct is exposed. McDonnell said Carillion’s collapse demonstrated that the accounting and pensions regulators “have once more failed to do their jobs” and that “accountants and auditors seem to operate with impunity whilst lining their pockets”. 

McDonnell said “The lack of openness, transparency and accountability means nobody ever seems to be punished for their transgressions,” he said. “We have seen it all before. We still await proper investigation of the accounting and auditing shortcomings which led to the banking crash ten years ago.”

The independent review will also focus on the fact that the financial sector has at least 29 overlapping regulators. “This regulatory maze creates enormous opportunities for waste, duplication, obfuscation and buck-passing,” McDonnell said.

“It does not protect consumers or promote confidence. “We need a complete overhaul of the entire regulatory framework for finance and business, to promote openness, transparency, accountability and — where necessary — to impose appropriate punishments,” he added. “There will be no more Carillion scandals on Labour’s watch.”

McDonnell went on to say: “The tide of history has turned against the old neoliberal way of thinking. These ideas – Labour’s ideas – are becoming the new mainstream. Put into place, the next Labour government will build an economy for the many, not the few.”

Just this week, East Coast Mainline was taken out franchising for the third time, and the Treasury Select Committee condemned the directors of Carillion for “stuffing their mouths with gold” whilst the company collapsed. Both are damning examples of how the belief in government that markets and privatisation are the best way to organise society – the ideas of neoliberalism – have failed all but a very few at the top.

Too many governments, influenced by neoliberalism, have viewed effective corporate regulation as a barrier to prosperity, not an essential support. The result is a regulatory system that is not fit for purpose. The financial sector alone has at least 29 overlapping regulators, including the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The four big accountancy firms dominate the market and operate seemingly with impunity, as the collapse of Carillion demonstrated. Whether their clients win or lose, the big four always seem to ensure they themselves make a profit.

People are sick of losing their jobs, their pensions and their shareholding from corporate failures, but watching the culprits keep their large pay offs, pension pots and bonuses.  So I have asked Professor Prem Sikka to examine our regulatory system and bring forward proposals for reform to reinvigorate it.

Labour’s core economic objective is to create a prosperous economy that provides the richest quality of life possible for all our people, with its wealth produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. That means demonstrating how we can create the wealth needed to support this society in the new era of the fourth industrial revolution. And it means showing how we can confront the urgent, existential threat of climate change.

We need to secure major institutional changes to deliver the long-term, patient investment needed in new technologies, which is why Labour will create a National Investment Bank and transform our financial system, ending the excessive focus on short-term gains.

But it also means showing how that wealth can be fairly and sustainable shared. Our structural reforms are aimed at securing what Tony Benn described as an “irreversible shift in wealth and power in favour of working people”.

So we will democratise our economy at every level, massively scaling up the co-operative sector and introducing a “Right to Own” for workers when their companies are up for sale or threatened with takeover. It will require corporate governance reform, giving workers representation on company boards. We will restore trade union rights at work, and are exploring examples of legislation used elsewhere to enable profit sharing and share distribution. The wealth that our society produces includes the data we generate, and Labour will be exploring over the coming months ways in which that wealth can be put back into the hands of those who produce and use it.

Above all, it means improving the quality of people’s lives – not just in improving pay and giving people secure jobs, but in the human quality of people’s relationships and their free time.

We should work to live, not live to work, but under neoliberalism in Britain we seem to have got things the other way round. We work some of the longest hours in Europe to compensate for low investment and low productivity. A British worker produces in five days what a French or German worker produces in four.

As we invest and improve productivity we should look again at how we can reduce working hours, giving people more time for leisure and family life. The great promise of automation and the fourth industrial revolution is that we can liberate people from drudgery at work. But that will not happen without a government committed to making it happen, and able to assess its progress not only against the usual measures of success like GDP, but on metrics that show meaningful impacts for people – like real wages and inequality, and environmental protection, as the Institute for Public Policy Research has recommended.

The tide of history has turned against the old neoliberal way of thinking. These ideas – Labour’s ideas – are becoming the new mainstream. Put into place, the next Labour government will build an economy for the many, not the few.”

John McDonnell is Shadow Chancellor and MP for Hayes and Harlington

Related

 

Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest success is the discrediting of neoliberalism

Neoliberalism and corruption: hidden in plain sight

Neoliberalism, PR and spinning inverted totalitarianism

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I’m disabled through illness and on a very low income. But you can make a donation to help me continue to research and write free, informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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The anti-social public relations of the PR industry

Magnifying glass over computer code spelling out "big brother is watching."

In the UK, we have a Government that are scandalised and outraged by any criticism whatsoever. Ministers refuse to analyse, reflect and act on legitimate negative appraisal; they prefer instead to adopt outrage, and portray any opposition at all as somehow pathological. However, opposition and critical scrutiny are essential elements of a fully functioning democracy. 

When a Government dismiss any criticism or challenge from academics, charities, social organisations, campaigners and ordinary citizens as ‘scaremongering’, when any and every amount of empirical evidence that their policies cause deep distress and harm to people is declined as merely ‘anecdotal’ and when attempts at rational and democratic debate are simply brushed aside or labelled in a derogatory fashion as ‘marxism’ , it can’t possibly end well for the UK. These are all the trademarks of an authoritarian government teetering on the brink of totalitarianism

Critical narratives that expose the fatal flaws in the governments’ administration of policies, founded on a pernicious and totalising neoliberal ideology, are being effectively stifled or censored. 

One of the key methods being used is a basic ad hominem approach, which consists of attempts to discredit those presenting the Government with critical analysis, democratic feedback and evidence that challenges the governments’ claims. It’s an argumentative strategy (as opposed to a debating strategy) that entails a legitimate criticism or proposition being rebutted and attention being diverted by an attack on the character, motive, or some other attribute of the person presenting the criticism, or persons associated with the criticism, rather than addressing the substance of the criticism itself.

Ad hominem is a fallacious technique of reasoning that may be better understood as a perversion or corruption of perfectly rational debate and this forecloses on the possibility of democratic, rational, meaningful, intelligent and constructive political discourse.

One particular variant of ad hominem is exemplified in the ‘poisoning the well’ tactic that Conservatives use by ridiculously accusing many of their critics of being ‘Marxists’, members of the ‘hard left’ or Momentum, or simply just ‘scaremongers’. Another is a “shoot the messenger”approach. This is just one kind of oppressive method among several that are being used to neutralise alternative narratives and repress a healthy political pluralism – which of course is essential to democracy. 

It isn’t only the ‘business friendly’ neoliberal government engaging in these kind of tactics. It’s something of an irony that Hayek argued against government planning and regulation, claiming that by crushing competitive individualism, it would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Yet neoliberalism has reduced democracy to spectacle.  

When neoliberals mention ‘the market’ – which they see as a kind of idealised theatre for allocating rewards for competitive profit-seeking behaviours and punishments for citizens’ ‘bad choices’ (mostly in that they are simply poor) – what they tend to mean is simply a situation where corporations and those in positions of power get what they want. ‘The free market’ is a euphemism for rampant capitalism – another narrative given the PR touch. Austerity has become ‘living within our means’ an ‘reducing the deficit’. However, austerity is a central plank of neoliberal ideology.

As the state extends deregulation and increases freedoms that permit corporations to profit without constraint, limitation and the safeguards required to protect the environment and citizens, it also needs to re-regulate citizens, limiting their freedoms, micromanaging their perceptions and behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes and a shifting power structure.

The changing neoliberal economy has required changing politics and society, reflecting shifts in discourse, ethics, norms, beliefs, behaviours, perceptions and power relationships. It has required the re-alignment of citizens’ identities with neoliberal goals. Those goals serve the interests of very few people.

The recent political emphasis on psychoregulation – expressed through the ‘behavioural change’ agenda of libertarian paternalism, for example, which is being embedded in public policy – is aimed at either enforcing citizen compliance or socioeconomic exclusion, if they resist.

At the same time, neoliberalism has permitted a few very wealthy and powerful people to rewrite rules, laws, social norms, economic processes, ethics and to place themselves pretty much beyond public visibility, democratic transparency and moral accountability. 

Technotyranny and psychoregulation

John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton wrote in their 1995 book Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!: “Movements for social and political reform have often become targets of surveillance. […] The public relations industry has developed a lucrative side business scrutinizing the thoughts and actions of citizen activists, using paid spies who are often recruited from government, military or private security backgrounds.”

Last week’s revelations from the Bureau of investigative Journalists and the Guardian show just how much that these underhanded tactics are very much in use today. They don’t just impact and damage the groups being infiltrated. By privileging corporate interests, effectively giving them the first and last word on public issues, they distort vital public debates and profoundly damage our democracy.

The leaked documents that the Guardian and Bureau revealed suggest the use of secretive corporate security firms to gather intelligence about political campaigners has been widespread. However, police chiefs have in the past raised a ‘massive concern’ that the activities of the corporate companies are barely regulated and completely uncontrolled. The police have claimed that commercial firms have had more spies embedded in political groups than there were undercover police officers.

The revelations are based on hundreds of pages of leaked documents from two corporate intelligence firms, that reveal the inner workings of a normally subterranean industry over several years in the 2000s. Major firms are hiring people from security firms to monitor and infiltrate political groups that object to their commercial activities. The security firms are spying on law-abiding campaigners and impeding their democratic rights. The spies are known to surreptitiously foster conflicts within campaigns, to set activists against each other, in order to wear them down and make them lose their political motivation. “People get tired of it, that’s their weakness,” one person told the Guardian. He worked for a corporate espionage company.

These are the sort of tactics that are also being used to intimidate some individual commentators. 

Depersonalising the personal

I wrote an article recently, which was published by Welfare Weekly, about the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) assessments. Someone called Lindsay McGarvie, who claimed to be a ‘representative of Atos’, contacted Steven Preece, the editor of Welfare Weekly, asking him to get me to phone him as a matter of ‘high importance’ to have a ‘quick chat’ about a ‘couple of points’ in my article that are ‘inaccurate’. 

It turns that out the ‘representative of Atos’ is actually the director of Atos’s Public Relations (PR) company, called called 3X1. According to his LinkedIn profile,  McGarvie’s specialisms include:

Strategic public affairs counsel
– Reputation management
– Devising and implementing proactive PR and public affairs campaigns
– Media Training
– Digital communications

McGarvie also had directorship of Bread Public Relations Limited, which delivered: “media, marketing, and employee engagement campaigns for public and investor relations. The company specializes in generating third party endorsements by getting the right people to say the right thing, at the right time, and to enhance business strategy. Its activities include media relations, reports, crisis communications, employee engagement, and media training.

The company was founded in 2009 and was based in Aberdeen, United Kingdom. As of September 21, 2015, Bread Public Relations Limited has operated as a subsidiary of 3×1 Limited.

By coincidence someone has also very recently ‘reported’ me to the Department for Work and Pensions, claiming that I am ‘working and being paid as a writer’ and that I am ‘not really disabled’, and ‘faking my illness’. Curious, that.

Over the last few years, I’ve encountered a small group of people who campaigned to discredit my work online, even claiming I was a ‘snout for the establishment’ on one occasion. Bullies often project their own issues onto their target. Some of the lies and smears I saw posted in groups about me were pretty outrageous. From ‘She voted UKIP’ and ‘Sadiq Khan employs her to spread anti-Green propaganda’ to ‘She has over 500 fake online identities’ and ‘She’s a bully and attacked some charity workers’. Most of the attacks were ad hominem. They also had a distinctive psy-ops character. 

This same group have also systematically bullied people for sharing my articles, and  for simply being a friend of mine on Facebook. Sadly a few of those people stopped coming on social media because of how thoroughly unpleasant and intimidating these experiences were at the time. 

The group of perpetrators are people who claim to be left wing campaigners, too. However I strongly suspect that at least some of them aren’t who they say they are. Their ad homimen approach doesn’t tally with their declared ‘socialist’ values and principles.

They ran a malicious smear campaign for quite a stretch of time, and occasionally, people tell me they’re still at it. I just block them now, and when a new account springs up making the same kind of attacks, using the same comments and outrageous lies, I keep blocking, because these are not people who are up for any kind of rational debate. They don’t play nicely at all. 

Just to clarify, Atos have already judged me as disabled on two occasions recently, in addition to my GP, 3 rheumatology consultants, a neurologist, a pulmonary specialist, a physiotherapist and 2 occupational therapists – one from the council, one that my GP sent out to my home.

I don’t get paid for writing articles, including those I contribute to Welfare Weekly. I don’t get paid for my research either. If I did, I would be permitted to earn a certain amount anyway. But I don’t. Having a voluntary donation button on my site doesn’t equal earning a salary. Nor does my writing somehow indicate I am faking my illness. I don’t think disabled people are prohibited from reading, having opinions or sharing them via social media. Not yet, anyway. 

I believe that the timing of the bogus complaint to the DWP was most likely calculated carefully by someone to coincide with Christmas – to cause as much misery and untimely financial hardship as possible. 

I don’t know who made the complaint. It can’t have been done by anyone who actually knows me. But I’ve no doubt that this was a malicious act.

However, it won’t stop me writing any time soon.

I appreciate that the ‘complaint’ to the DWP may have been a coincidence. I also understand that the discussion may even sound somewhat paranoid. However, these are not isolated events, and other campaigners and  groups have also been targeted by Atos.

The use of targeted political ‘dark ads‘ – using ‘big data’ harvesting and the identification and manipulation of distinctive ‘psychological profiles’  – and the tactical use of social media as a weapon in political discourse are examples of how social media is being used to create new marketplaces for political and corporate loyalty, providing the opportunity for shills and astroturfers to opt-in (and out) of identities. The increased use of psychological profiling with sophisticated, targeted and manipulative political techniques of persuasion and astroturfing campaigns has also corresponded with a commensurate decline in the standards and ethics of mainstream journalism. 

The private company Cambridge Analytica hit the news earlier this year because its alleged role in manipulating the voting decisions of citizens by using  detailed profiling of the personalities of individual voters to target them, to create large shifts in public opinion. The controversial company is partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, an American billionaire hedge-fund manager who supports many neoliberal, politically conservative and alt right causes.

Social network media more generally is being used to construct and shape global politics and manage contemporary political conflicts through the conduction of intelligence collection, targeting, cyber-operations, psychological warfare and command and control activities.

Power and persuasion

PR is a persuasion industry. It involves the creation of powerful lobby groups to influence government policy, corporate policy and public opinion, typically in a way that benefits the sponsoring organisation. PR companies often use a ‘thought leadership’ approach, which usually refers to a potentially ‘winning’ strategy for paying customers, based on a notion of authority, rather than on intellectual reasoning, dialogue and rational debate. There’s a lot of talking at the public, rather than with them.

Money talks and bullshit walks. 

Many PR companies offer an ‘expertise’ in ‘behavioural insights’ to businesses, in order to help them ‘win’ and make profit. However, quite often ‘thought leadership’ entails using well-known marketing techniques to achieve the impression of being an erudite and rational presenter and speaker. It’s inane managementspeak and psychobabble that basically means finding ways of managing company reputations, damage limitation and managing public opinion, promoting corporate and/or specific political interests and making profits. In the same way that Behavioural Economics manages the reputation of Conservative/libertarian neoliberalism, promoting political and corporate interests and making fat profits. 

And stifling criticism. Many people quite reasonably associate PR with all things unethical – lying, spin-doctoring, and even espionage. Many critics argue that there can be no ethical public relations because the practice itself is all about manufacturing opinions, manipulation and propaganda. It’s about smoke and mirrors to hide the source of deception. Neoliberalism is toxic and regressive. It can’t offer the public anything whatsoever of value, so the state and corporations – the only beneficiaries of the now totalising imposition of this ideology – have to employ ‘specialists’ to sell it for them.

Selling neoliberalism to the public using techniques of persuasion and political psychoregulation is also very neoliberal, in that it makes fat profits while imposing  and justifying a hegemony of narrow private interests. 

3X1 is not the only PR company regularly accessing my articles. 

Over the last couple of years, my site has been visited using a portal from Edelman Intelligence, which is among the world’s largest PR companies. Either their staff or their clients have been quietly visiting my own humble WordPress site, the link (which I found on my web traffic and stats information page) shows they were referred to my site from Edelman’s own social media monitoring command centre. 

I know this because on my site’s traffic and stats pagereferrers are listed, such as Facebook, Twitter, search engines and so on. You can click on the link provided and it shows you were site visitors have come from.

Despite the fact that the CEO of the ‘largest PR agency in the world’ called for PR professionals to ‘adopt a new set of standards in the wake of the Bell Pottinger scandal’, Edelman have generated a few scandals of their own. 

The ultimate corporate goal is sheer self-interested profit-making, but this will always be dressed up by PR to appear synonymous with the wider, national interest. At the moment, that means a collective chanting of ‘economic growth’, low taxes, ‘freedom’, supply side ‘productivity’, implied trickle down, jobs and ‘personal responsibility’ – all a part of the broader business friendly neoliberal mantra. It’s like encountering Ayn Rand on steroids and in a very ugly mood.

Corporations buy their credibility and utilise seemingly independent people such as academics with a mutual interest to carry their message for them. Some think tanks – especially free-market advocates like Reform or leading neoliberal think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs – will also provide companies with a lobbying package: a media-friendly report, a Westminster event, meetings with politicians, that sort of thing. The extensive PR industry are paid to brand, market, engineer a following, build trust and credibility and generally sell the practice of managing the spread of information between an individual or an organisation (such as a business, government agency, the media) and the public.

PR is concerned with selling products, persons, governments and policies, corporations, and other institutions. In addition to marketing products, PR has been variously used to attract investments, influence legislation, raise companies’ public profiles, put a positive spin on policies, disasters, undermine citizens campaigns, gain public support for conducting warfare, and to change the public perception of repressive regimes.

Money talks and bullshit walks, all at the right price.

To paraphrase Seamus Milne, there is a revolving door of mutually exclusive political and corporate favour, ceaselessly spinning.

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Our public life and democracy is now profoundly compromised by its colonisation, as corporate and financial power have merged into the state.

Edelman Intelligence and Westbourne, for example, are engaged in rebuttal campaigns and multimedia astroturfing projects to protect corporate interests:

Monitoring of opposition groups is common: one lobbyist from agency Edelman talks of the need for “360-degree monitoring” of the internet, complete with online “listening posts … so they can pick up the first warning signals” of activist activity. “The person making a lot of noise is probably not the influential one, you’ve got to find the influential one,” he says. Rebuttal campaigns are frequently employed: “exhausting, but crucial,” says Westbourne.” From The truth about lobbying: 10 ways big business controls government. 

The blogs (or ‘flogs’) Working Families for Walmart and subsidiary site Paid Critics were written by three employees of Edelman, for whom WalMart is a paid client. Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the PR firm, apologised on his own flog: “I want to acknowledge our error in failing to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers from the outset. This is 100% our responsibility and our error; not the client’s.”  

Imagine that. Paying big bucks to a PR company, and yet you have no idea what they actually do for your company. 

It’s like a self perpetuating cycle of ever-increasing corruption. Big companies wouldn’t need PR in the first place if they intend to be genuinely transparent and accountable. PR companies are pretty ruthlesness regarding the tactics they use to earn fat profits for themselves, and for their fellow free marketeers. 

The communications industry’s ethics came under scrutiny due to the fall of Bell Pottinger after the London-based firm was accused of conducting a ‘secret misinformation campaign’ on behalf of Oakbay Investments inflaming racial tensions in South Africa. UK-based industry body, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) banned Bell Pottinger from trading for five years.

Motherboard (Vice) reports, in 2014, that documents obtained by Greenpeace illustrate the extensive, meticulous planning that has gone into at least one of Edelman‘s proposed astroturf campaigns, aimed at helping TransCanada mobilise ‘grassroots’ support for its effort to build a new pipeline that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta to Quebec.

Astroturfing is the increasingly popular tactic used by corporations to sponsor front groups or manufacture the appearance of grassroots support to simulate a genuine social movement that is rallying for goals in line with their profit motive. It’s the manufacturing of ‘consensus’ where none actually exists. In the past, astroturf efforts have used paid actors, company employees, and media-heavy websites. But the programme that Edelman pitches in its own reports goes even deeper.

The documents detailed an in-depth proposal—part sales pitch, part action plan—put together by Edelman‘s Calgary office, suggesting that TransCanada combat environmental groups by mounting one such manufactured “grassroots advocacy” campaign.

Those environmentalists were organising to oppose the Energy East pipeline, which TransCanada hoped would be an alternative to the long-delayed Keystone XL, on the grounds that it would disastrously boost carbon emissions and increase the likelihood of a major oil spill.

Edelman’s plan was specifically designed to “[… ] add layers of difficulty for our opponents, distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources,” according to the documents.

It stressed developing “supportive third parties, who can in turn put the pressure on, especially when TransCanada can’t.

In other words, the goal would be to attack environmentalists head on with supporters recruited by, but not necessarily directly affiliated with, Edelman and TransCanada

Greenpeace said: “Edelman’s plan involve a ‘seeding strategy,’aimed at getting trusted academics and TV shows to parrot pro-TransCanada propaganda. The plan rounds out it’s immersive assault on key communities using hyperlocal, geotargeted messaging to take over Facebook feeds and local TV programming… Edelman plans on using the astroturf plan to influence media, the public, politicians, and regulatory agencies.” 

With concerns about climate change and activism quite properly on the rise, along with the dire warnings from climate scientists, sophisticated PR campaigns to shut down opposition to fossil fuel and promote climate change denial has become almost a neccessity for companies like TransCanada

The Motherboard article also says that Edelman runs software called the ‘Grassroots Multiplier’ that it claims can ‘convert average citizens’ into pro-oil ‘true champions.’  Now that resonated with me. We know for sure that this company and its clients are spying on campaigners like me. I contacted Edelman earlier this year to ask them why they were interested in visiting my site. I had no response. 

In April 1998 the Los Angeles Times reported that Edelman had drafted a campaign plan to ensure that state attorneys-generals did not join antitrust legal actions against Microsoft. Documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times revealed that the astroturfing plan included generating ‘supportive’ letters to the editor, opinion pieces, and articles by freelance writers. 

USA Today said the plan included “unusual, and some say unethical tactics, including the planting of articles, letters to the editor and opinion pieces to be commissioned by Microsoft’s top media handlers but presented by local firms as spontaneous testimonials.”  

In 2008 Edelman’s work with E.ON, which planned to build a coal power station at Kingsnorth attracted protests at Edelman‘s UK headquarters. In 2009, to coincide with the weeklong ‘Climate Camp’ range of protests, a group of naked protestors occupied Edelman‘s reception, generating much media attention.

Edelman also provided ‘crisis management’ support and communications for Rupert Murdoch and News Corporation during the phone hacking scandal. 

Among the controversial aspects of Edelman’s history is its work for various tobacco companies in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Documents released under the Master Settlement Agreement revealed how the company played a key role in preventing effective legislation against the tobacco industry and manipulating public opinion on tobacco and its adverse effects on health in the US.

Other documents reveal how Edelman assisted transnational tobacco companies “to slow, to stop, to reverse the growing belief that smoking is harmful to the nonsmoker,” encouraging clients to “break out of the tried and true principles of Public Relations – 101 and massage some truly creative ideas.”

As late as the mid-1990s, Edelman was helping Philip Morris fight smoking bans and working to generate positive media coverage for Marlboro’s products. By then the risks of smoking – the health-damaging and life-limiting effects of tobacco – were widely known and scientifically verified several times over.

Other clients of Edelman have included the despotic and repressive government of Saudi Arabia. Mind you, our own government sells arms to the same government.

Cision are another PR company that provide social media ‘monitoring’ and I have had visits to my site from theirs. The company offers three web-based packages: the ‘CisionMarketing Suite’, the ‘Public Relations Suite’ and a ‘Government Relations and Political Action Committee Suite’The Cision ‘Public Relations Suite’ allows users to distribute press releases, access a database of bloggers and journalists, and monitor and analyse news and social media sites. 

The company’s ‘Government Relations Suite’ manages government contacts, analyses lobbying activity, facilitates communication with elected officials and provides PAC compliance software for filing reports to the FEC and state elections commissions (in US). Cision also have a UK base at Canary Wharf, London. They offer a service to businesses that enables business and other actors to “Monitor millions of social media, mainstream news and online news sources, to help you control your story.” 

Ultimately these strategies are all about public ‘knowledge management’ and manipulation.

A listed app called meltwater has also showed up on my stats page more recently. Outside Insight is Meltwater’s Media Intelligence and Social Media Monitoring tool. Their site says: “PR professionals lean on Meltwater’s product suite to help them boost their brand’s position and demonstrate their ROI (Return on Investment).”

Another app that is used to refer people to my site is from the People Pattern Corporation, which is a market research company that say: “While most social marketing tools focus on analyzing conversations about a brand, we know that the most valuable insights come from studying the people behind those conversations.”

I can’t help but wonder what they made of me and my humble, anti-neoliberal, unprepackaged, unsold, unsponsored, unspun, kiss-my-ass-rational, researched and evidenced analysis and commentaries. 

Then there is Falcon IO, also regularly visiting my site, who say: “Managing brand perception in a world of social and online sharing can seem daunting. Social listening is the first step to regaining control.” What strikes me is the complete lack of transparency surrounding the traffic being directed to my site from these PR companies. I can’t access any of the sites via the links in my traffic stats.

This company say they use behavioural insights to manipulate people’s opinion, using social media as a platform.

So do the Government. In 2008 one member of Boris Johnson’s campaign team was caught posting comments on blogs critical of his boss without sufficiently concealing their identity. A few years later, another member of Johnson’s campaign was found posing as a ‘concerned’ Labour supporter trying to prevent Ken Livingstone from being the party’s candidate for mayor. 

As Adam Bienkov says: “Twitter and blogging have given a voice to millions and allowed genuine opposition movements to take their case to the masses. Censorship of these movements has not always proved effective, with only authoritarian governments possessing the means and the will to implement it. For big business and less repressive governments, the alternative of simply crowding out your opposition online must seem a far more attractive prospect.”

It’s a lucrative business too. On Facebook, it’s commonplace for people with community pages to get a notification asking you to ‘boost’ your posts for a sum of money. This increases the reach of the post – more people see it. This means that those who can afford to pay the most to Facebook have the most prominent positions in newsfeeds, the biggest audiences and potentially, the greatest influence on opinion, as it simply crowds out alternative perspectives.

Even our views and beliefs are being subjected to market forces, as social media platforms are increasingly neoliberalised and thus become increasingly undemocratised. 

Attempts to manipulate the media and public opinion are on the rise – spurred on in part by the repressive political mood in the UK and the growing reach of the internet.

Green plastering the internet

Astroturfing has become a powerful and efficient public opinion management strategy for many organisations, and also for the state. Pre-written letters to an editor have turned into opinion-spamming and fake online reviews. The internet has offered a broad arena to practise astroturfing. It’s an irony that the agriculture world’s prince of darkness. Monsanto, invented the real ‘chemgrass’ asfroturf. And by coincidence, Edelman launched a charm offensive for the GMO giant, intimidating environmentally friendly bloggers and pointing out the occasional ‘couple of errors’ here and there. Seems like a commonly used PR tactic, then. Edelman got pretty much the same treatment that I’ve given 3X1. Quite properly so. I take this democracy and free speech idea very seriously, as it happens.

Astroturfing can range from a few forum posts online or comments praising a company or government ideology and policy to something rather closer to harassmentand abuse, and from genuine disagreement and independent troublemakers to organised ‘trolls’, and acutely personal and intimidating attacks from entirely fake campaigners.

Organisations involved in competition may also suffer substantially from astroturfing practices, when competitors are, for example, spreading false information and rumours about them.

But then, so do campaigners, grassroots groups and academic critics, increasingly. The difference between astroturfing and grassroots movements is that grassroots movements are authentic, created spontaneously and promote issues in the public interest, whereas fake grassroots movements are created artificially by, for example, organisations or the state. Astroturfing is all about promoting private interests.

Lobbyists and PR experts are usually behind fake grassroots movements. George Monbiot also adds the state as one of the actors behind astroturfing. Astroturfing is a weapon that state and corporate players use. Monbiot defines astroturfing as a technique, which mimics spontaneous grassroots mobilisations.

He says: “Companies now use “persona management software”, which multiplies the efforts of each astroturfer, creating the impression that there’s major support for what a corporation or government is trying to do.

 This software creates all the online furniture a real person would possess: a name, email accounts, web pages and social media. In other words, it automatically generates what look like authentic profiles, making it hard to tell the difference between a virtual robot and a real commentator.

 Fake accounts can be kept updated by automatically reposting or linking to content generated elsewhere, reinforcing the impression that the account holders are real and active.

 Human astroturfers can then be assigned these “pre-aged” accounts to create a back story, suggesting that they’ve been busy linking and retweeting for months. No one would suspect that they came onto the scene for the first time a moment ago, for the sole purpose of attacking an article on climate science or arguing against new controls on salt in junk food.

 With some clever use of social media, astroturfers can, in the security firm’s words, “make it appear as if a persona was actually at a conference and introduce himself/herself to key individuals as part of the exercise … There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to fictitious personas.”

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation is this. The US Air Force has been tendering for companies to supply it with persona management software, which will perform the following tasks:

a. Create “10 personas per user, replete with background, history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographically consistent … Personas must be able to appear to originate in nearly any part of the world and can interact through conventional online services and social media platforms.”

b. Automatically provide its astroturfers with “randomly selected IP addresses through which they can access the internet” (an IP address is the number which identifies someone’s computer), and these are to be changed every day, “hiding the existence of the operation”. The software should also mix up the astroturfers’ web traffic with “traffic from multitudes of users from outside the organisation. This traffic blending provides excellent cover and powerful deniability.”

c. Create “static IP addresses” for each persona, enabling different astroturfers “to look like the same person over time”. It should also allow “organisations that frequent same site/service often to easily switch IP addresses to look like ordinary users as opposed to one organisation.”

Software like this has the potential to destroy the internet as a forum for constructive debate. It jeopardises the notion of online democracy. Comment threads on issues with major commercial implications are already being wrecked by what look like armies of organised trolls – as you can sometimes see on guardian.co.uk.

The internet is a wonderful gift, but it’s also a bonanza for corporate lobbyists, viral marketers and government spin doctors, who can operate in cyberspace without regulation, accountability or fear of detection. In recent years, the lobbying game has changed because of social media websites, citizen journalism (described by one lobbyist as “a major irritant”), and online petitions capable of getting millions of signatures in a matter of hours. Among the lobbyists affected by this shift is James Bethell, whose firm, Westbourne Communications, is in the business of fighting back against what it calls the “insurgency tactics” of online campaigners.

Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell, writing for Vice, say: Today, commercial lobbyists operate sophisticated monitoring systems designed to spot online threats. It you bad-mouth a large corporation in 140 characters, chances are the corporation’s social media people will find it. Their job, then, is to sift through the sea of online malcontents and find the “influencers.”

“The person making a lot of noise is probably not the influential one,” Mike Seymour, the former head of crisis management at PR and lobbying giant Edelman, told fellow flacks attending a conference across the road from UK Parliament in November 2011. “You’ve got to find the influential one, especially if they are gatherers of people against us.” His point was eloquently made by events happening across town—as he spoke, Occupy protests were creating headlines around the world. Seymour explained that once these influencers are identified, “listening posts” should be put out there, to “pick up the first warning signals” of activist operations. 

Once they have this intelligence, lobbyists can get to work. Part of Westbourne’s response to HS2 critics was to “zero in” and counter “inconsistent” press reports, as Bethell explained to high-speed rail advocates in the US. More broadly, Westbourne has advised US lobbyists of the need to “pick off” their critics with “sniper-scope accuracy” – to “shut them up,” as he explained to an audience of distinguished guests at a conference in 2012. Westbourne engages in aggressive rebuttal campaigns, which involves creating a feeling among opponents that everything they say will be picked apart. This is an “exhausting but crucial” part of successful lobbying, says Bethell.

This ‘exhausting but crucial part of successful lobbying’ includes injecting all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of targeted opponents; and the use of techniques drawn from the social sciences, linguistics, poropaganda and the advertising industry to manipulate and warp online discourse and activism to generate outcomes that PR companies’ clients – including governments and the corporate sector – considers desirable.

The corporate is also the political: the cosy relationship of shared totalitarian tactics

Glenn Greenwald is an American journalist and author, best known for his role in a series of reports published by The Guardian newspaper beginning in June 2013, detailing the US and UK global surveillance programmes, and based on classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden.  

In June 2013, a visit by notionally jackbooted government national security agents to smash computer hard drives at the Guardian newspaper offices hit the news surprisingly quietly, when Snowden exposed a gross abuse of power and revealed mass surveillance programmes by American and British secret policing agencies (NSA and GCHQ

David Miranda, partner of Greenwald, Guardian interviewer of the whistleblower Snowden, was held for 9 hours at Heathrow Airport and questioned under the Terrorism Act. Officials confiscated his personal electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles. 

This was an intimidation tactic, and a profound attack on press freedoms and the news gathering process. As Greenwald said: “To detain my partner for a full nine hours while denying him a lawyer, and then seize large amounts of his possessions, is clearly intended to send a message of intimidation.” Even the Telegraph columnist Janet Daley remarked that these events were like something out of East Germany in the 1970s. 

A couple of years back, Greenwald wrote: “Surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people’s reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they’ve been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats.  

“As Anonymous expert Gabriella Coleman of McGill University told me, “targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent.” Pointing to this study she published, Professor Coleman vehemently contested the assertion that “there is anythingterrorist or violent in their actions.”

Government plans to monitor and influence internet communications, and covertly infiltrate online communities in order to sow dissension and disseminate false information, had long been the source of speculation.

Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, [co-author of “Nudge”, with behavioural economist Richard Thaler], a close Obama adviser and the White House’s former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-independent advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.

Sunstein also proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as false and damaging “conspiracy theories” about the government. Legitimate criticisms, in other words. I’ve suggested that nudge strategies are being deployed to influence political opinions online for some time. They are.

But the GCHQ documents were the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online and harm the reputations of targets. Under the tactics they use, the state is deliberately spreading lies on the internet about whichever individuals it targets, including the use of what GCHQ itself calls “false flag operations” and emails to people’s families and friends.

Who would possibly trust a government to exercise these powers at all, let alone do so in secret, with virtually no oversight, and outside of any cognizable legal framework?

Then there is the use of psychology and other social sciences to not only understand, but shape and control, how online activism and discourse unfolds.

Greewald said in 2015: “Today’s newly published document touts the work of GCHQ’s “Human Science Operations Cell,” devoted to “online human intelligence” and “strategic influence and disruption”:

Under the title “Online Covert Action”, the document details a variety of means to engage in “influence and info ops” as well as “disruption and computer net attack,” while dissecting how human beings can be manipulated using “leaders,” “trust,” “obedience” and “compliance”:


The documents lay out theories of how humans interact with one another, particularly online, and then attempt to identify ways to influence the outcomes – or “game” it:

Claims that government agencies are infiltrating online communities and engaging in “false flag operations” to discredit targets are often dismissed as conspiracy theories, but these documents leave no doubt they are doing precisely that.

No government should be able to engage in these tactics: there can be no justification for government agencies to target people – who have been charged with no crime – for reputation-destruction, infiltratation [and sometimes destruction] of online political communities, and for developing techniques for manipulating online discourse. But to allow those actions with no public knowledge, informed consent or accountability is particularly dangerous as well as completely unjustifiable.

PR is concerned with selling products, persons, governments and policies, corporations, and other institutions. In addition to marketing products, PR has been variously used to attract investments, influence legislation, raise companies’ public profiles, put a positive spin on policies, disasters, undermine citizens campaigns, gain public support for conducting warfare, and to change the public perception of repressive regimes.

As I said in the opening paragraphs, these reflect the actions of a government (and state sponsors) teetering on the brink of totalitarianism.

 

Related 

Atos’s PR company director wants me to phone him about one of my articles

More allegations of Tory election fraud, now we need to talk about democracy

Social media is being used to stage manage our democracy using nudge-based strategies

Theresa May pledges to create new internet that would be controlled and regulated by government

The inexorable rise of the PR men

These astroturf libertarians are the real threat to internet democracy – George Monbiot

I share Monbiot’s observations that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilised than debates about issues where big business stands to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health, equality and corporate tax avoidance.

These are often characterised by incredible levels of abuse and disruption. I have also noted the strong association between this tactic and a clearly identifiable set of values that are pro-neoliberal. Such values would be remarkably self-defeating for ordinary citizens to hold – the equivalent of daily hitting yourself in the face while simultaneously simply handing out your income to the state and millionaires. These values are: pro-corporate, anti-tax, anti-welfare and anti-regulation.

Many ‘libertarians’ argue that reducing the state means liberation: ‘freedom’ for citizens to pursue their own interests. In an era of all-pervasive government social experimentation in behavoural economics,  citizen psychoregulation and micromanagement and increasing western political authoritarianism, that’s hardly likely to come to pass. The many libertarians I’ve enountered online have a profound dislike of the promotion of civil rights and genuine citizen freedoms. That’s just for ‘snowflakes’, apparently.

The US libertarians are invariably strident patriots,they defend the military and bang on about the right to own a gun so that they can defend their ‘private property’. You can point out to these often aggressive and abusive commentators who like to call you ‘snowflake’, ‘leftard’ , ‘do-gooder’ (absurdly), and ‘bleeding heart liberal’, that without a degree of welfare and healthcare, many can’t possibly be ‘free’, but to no avail.

They simply become more abusive, rational debate becomes impossible and subsequently predictably shuts down. It’s difficult to believe that these parading ‘ordinary folk’ despots are commenting with ordinary folk’s best interests in mind.

 


 

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Social security is a provision paid for by the public to support the public ‘from from the cradle to the grave’ when they fall on hard times

Related image

This post follows on from my previous article, which critically addresses David Gauke’s irrational defence of the punitive use of social security sanctions.

Some logical gaps in government rhetoric

The government claim that more people are in employment. However, the government have ensured via systematic deregulation that the ‘supply-side’ labour market is designed to suit the wants of employers and not the needs of employees. Supply-side policies include the promotion of greater competition in labour markets, through the removal of ‘restrictive’ practices, such as the protection of employment.

For example, as part of supply-side reforms in the 1980s, trade union powers were greatly reduced by a series of measures including limiting worker’s ability to call a strike, and by enforcing secret ballots of union members prior to strike action.

More recently, the Conservatives have attacked trade unions again, encroaching on work place democracy and civil rights. People claiming social security are being coerced by the state to take any job available, regardless of conditions and pay, or face sanctions.

This also seriously undermines any kind of bargaining for better pay and working conditions. It leaves workers without protection against profit-driven monopsonist employers (large employers that tend to dominate the employment market, such as Capita, G4S, Atos, Amazon, Uber, for example) leading to lower and lower wages. The government’s claims about the merits of increased labour market ‘flexibility’ have nonetheless introduced a considerable degree of precarity, which makes workers feel insecure, and more fearful of losing their jobs. It has also led to lower wage growth and rapidly increasing inequality.

As a consequence of government decision-making, much employment is insecure and wages have been driven down to the point where they are exploitative and no longer cover even the basic livings costs of workers. Wages have stagnatedand are most likely to remain stagnated for the foreseeable future. 

So we now have a politically constructed economic situation where even nurses and teachers are forced to visit food banks because they can’t afford to eat. 

At a time when the government boasts more people than ever are in employment, the numbers of cases of malnutrition and poverty-related illnesses are actually rising

The official UK unemployment rate has been well below the EU average for some years, and the as the government keeps pointing out, the employment rate is almost at a historic high, yet the welfare state is seen as a major concern, with the government claiming it presents people with ‘perverse incentives’, which prevent them from working. That very clearly isn’t true. However, the employment figures disguise the serious problem of under-employment, employment precarity and low wages.  

Furthermore, a recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveals that more than a  fifth of the UK population is now living in poverty amid the worst decline for children and pensioners in decades. Nearly 400,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners are now living in poverty than five years ago, during which time there have been continued increases in poverty across both age groups – prompting experts to warn that hard-fought progress towards tackling destitution is ‘in peril’. 

The analysis highlights that 3 factors which had, over previous decades, led to a fall in poverty, are now cause for concern; social security support for many of those on low incomes ensured that people didn’t experience severe hardship and poverty, but it has been falling in real terms, changes to welfare policy have seen the numbers in poverty rising again, affordable social housing is no longer accessible and rents are increasing (particularly in the private sector), and lastly, rising employment is no longer reducing poverty.  

Work very clearly does not pay. 

The UK is regressing. We have a government that is undoing the social gains made following our progressive post-war settlement. 

The economic problems, inequality and poverty that we are witnessing have not arisen because welfare creates ‘disincentives’ to work, nor is there a shortage of  ‘hard workers’ or a sudden growth in the number of ‘shirkers’, or people with faulty characters, as every Conservative government since Margeret Thatcher has claimed. 

There is a shortage of good, secure and adequately salaried jobs. The small rise in the national minimum wage will unfortunately be offset with increasing living costs and the welfare cuts to both in and out of work social security. It’s not, by the way, a ‘national living wage’, as the Tories keep trying to claim. It’s a very modest rise in the minimum wage, which is rather long overdue. 

Image result for welfare spending uk pie chart

‘Making work pay’ is a simply a Conservative euphemism for the dismantling of the welfare state – a civilised and civilising institution that came into existence to ensure that no-one faces starvation, destitution and the ravages of absolute poverty.

Most of our welfare spending goes on pensions, first, then the bulk of the rest goes on supporting people in work who are paid exploitatively low wages.  

Making work pay for employers: the ‘business friendly’ government 

Trade unions are disempowered, because the government hates any form of collective bargaining which is aimed at improving the living and working conditions of ordinary people. They legislated to ensure that any collective action is very difficult. The government also punishes people on low pay with sanctions. As if taking money from people already on the breadline will somehow address the profit seeking executive decisions of employers. That’s cruel beyond belief. 

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report says that the squeeze on living standards now risks storing up problems for the future, with people being caught in a  ‘standstill generation’ – one where people are unable to build the foundations for a decent, secure life. 

Over the last couple of days, I have seen a few people of pension age claiming that pensions are ‘not welfare’. That pensions are a ‘right’, and that people who paid in all their lives deserve support. Of course they do. 

However, so do our young people (who live in a much less kind society than the one our generation enjoyed), working people, disabled people and everyone else who faces material hardship. We ALL pay into the welfare state. It was designed to provide ‘from the cradle to the grave’ support for everyone who should need it, as set out in Sir William Beveridge’s report Social Insurance and Allied Services, published on 1 December 1942.

Beveridge’s vision was for an national insurance-based welfare state in which entitlement would be earned largely by the function the citizen undertook, either through work or by assuming caring responsibilities. When Winston Churchill finally turned his attention to domestic politics after the Second World War he conjured up the phrase by which Beveridge’s proposals would be described: he envisaged a compulsory national insurance that would afford coverage ‘from the cradle to the grave’.

Social security originally included maternity grants, child benefit, unemployment and sickness benefits, old-age pensions and a grant to cover the costs of death. 

The underpinning welfare principles of universalism and collectivism 

The national insurance scheme is intuitively fair to most people, it is based on collective ethics, rather than being governed by private market insurance rules. 

‘Welfare’ means Wellbeing/Safety/Health. Beverage was tasked with the responsibility of determining what was needed for Britain to take care of the basic needs of citizens, ensuring no-one lived in poverty, and to create a set of reforms that ensured everyone had a basic standard of living, regardless of their circumstances.

Welfare was originally designed to be universally accessible when people were in need of assistance. No-one deserves support in meeting their basic survival needs more than anyone else. Or rather, every person ought to have the same right to adequately meet the costs necessary for survival – basic costs for fundamental needs such as for food, fuel and shelter, for example.

It’s a measure of how successful the Conservatives’ intentional, purposefully divisive stigmatising campaign has been of those in receipt of social security that some social groups want to now distance themselves from the very term ‘welfare’.

Yet the welfare state was a truly great British achievement, it was a civilised and civilising reform that improved the lives of many, sparing them the abject misery of absolute poverty. The Conservatives don’t pay for welfare provision: we do. Yet to hear their anti-welfare rhetoric and to read their anti-humanist ideology, anyone would think the funding comes from their own pockets, such is their scorn and indignation that people should have, and expect the right, to an adequate standard of living and healthcare.

Yet this is what Cameron had in mind when he said he wanted to end ‘the culture of entitlement’. He was signalling that the Conservatives intend to dismantle welfare,  other public services and provisions. The government portrays our welfare state as a ‘free good’, but WE have already paid for it. As did our parents.

Instead of regarding welfare as ‘unsustainable’ and as the problematic ‘vulnerability’ of some citizens requiring support in a system that invariably creates wealth for a few, and increasing hardship for the many, perhaps it’s time to view the government’s obsession with welfare conditionality, ‘behaviour change’ and punitive sanctions – which have turned a provision aimed at meeting basic material needs into a means of disciplining poor people – and with dismantling our social security, for what this really is: state oppression. 

In the 1940s, a widely shared international consensus specifically linked social welfare to democratic citizenship, upholding universal rights, greater equality and social justice. We share with Europe a common history of social rights, democratic participation and welfare capitalism. In light of the recent global transformations of the economic order, significant changes in the distribution of wealth and power have reshaped the meaning of citizenship and redefined the relationship between the state and citizens in a post-welfare-state era. The lasting and damaging effects of austerity and inequality will inevitably negatively influence democratic inclusion and participation, as well as having a profound impact on people’s material wellbeing. 

David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu show in their book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills (2013), that the human costs of dismantling the welfare state may be measured out in increased morbidity and mortality figures, as evidenced in the global recession. The book explores government responses to financial crises through the lens of health outcomes. The authors argue that austerity is never the right prescription as it hinders return to growth and causes immense suffering to citizens’ health and wellbeing. 

In those countries that maintained their welfare system, no such increases occurred. Stuckler and Banjay also point out that those countries which maintained their welfare system recovered quicker from the recession than those that didn’t, indicating that welfare spending is an excellent stimulus to the economy.

The truth is that for Conservatives, their perceived problems of the welfare state is not really an issue of its ‘sustainability’ or cost, it is a purely ideological issue. The Conservatives’ most treasured class-based prejudices and beliefs in the not so free Free Market are chronically and morbidly offended by it. 

I guess Beverage didn’t foresee the sixth great ‘evil’ – the overarching anti-collectivism of belligerently imposed neoliberal socioeconomics, which extends ever-widening inequality and increasing poverty of the masses wherever it travels. 

Welfare was designed for everyone in need, regardless of their age. That was the whole point of welfare – to ensure no-one in the UK is starving and destitute. 

As citizens, we need to stand on our hind legs and bypass the intentionally divisive rhetoric. We need to stand together to defend what is OURS: the welfare state was never funded by the government and never was. 

The wefare budget is therefore not the government’s money to cut.


 

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Choice architecture, neoliberalism and the politics of compliance

 

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The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model” – Simon Clarke (2005). (See also If You Look Behind Neoliberal Economists, You’ll Discover the Rich: How Economic Theories Serve Big Business. The road to serfdom – sponsored by big business).

Nudge: when the luxury of making choices has been commodified and packaged

Choice architecture is a term was coined by libertarian paternalists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008). It refers to the practice of influencing choice by changing the manner in which options are presented to people.

For example, this can be done by setting defaults, framing, or adding decoy options. 

Choice architecture influences decision-making by simplifying the presentation of choices, by automatically evoking particular associations, or by making one option more salient or “easier” to choose than the alternatives. It works “beneath” our rational and reflective processes.

Personally, I see choice architecture as starkly lit Orwellian features along the short road and cul-de-sac to choiceless choices. It’s a reductive and determined journey, which ends by the state deciding and determining how citizens ought to be

A government that is acting upon the perceptions and behaviours of citizens in order to align them with politically defined socioeconomic outcomes turns democracy on its head. It detaches public policies from genuine wider public needs and interests. Governments are elected in the expectation that they will behave in ways that meet the needs of a population.

Democracy entails a dialogue between government and citizens. However, nudge closes down that dialogue, and restricts human agency – the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Policies are increasingly about the government instructing us how to behave. How to be.

Choice architecture redesigns our experiences without our consent. Diversion from the path of those choices chosen for us by choice architects is considered to be pathological. Nudge doesn’t accommodate creative opportunity, critical thinking or any form of genuine learning. It simply claims that we each operate within the confines of bounded rationality. We are cognitively flawed. But nudge doesn’t present the opportunity for citizens to develop awareness of potential limits, to problem-solve or to learn how to become better cognitively equipped.

It’s precisely because we are ALL cognitively flawed that the production of knowledge for governance itself needs be governed.  In this respect, behavioural econmics displays an arrogance and epistemoloical authoritarianism in that it is assumed the theories it’s founded on somehow escape the confines of rational boundaries that everyone else is unable to transcend. It’s like saying “that’s your “human nature”, but not ours”. If we are all cognitively flawed, then no-one is exempt from that rule.

Nudge reduces our experiences to measured, measurable, politically defned quantitative “outcomes”, at the expense of the crucial qualitative accounts and participation of citizens that contribute to a functioning democracy.

Thaler and Sunstein define a “nudge” as:

Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

This statement puzzles me. If a behaviour is altered in a predictable way, then how will we know if any of the other potential options were forbidden or not, and surely, it means at the very least that the other possibilities – alternative choices – have been foreclosed intentionally by the choice architect. If it didn’t mean that, then why use nudge at all, how exactly does nudging work, and why are we funding it?

Libertarian paternalism or “nudging” is a mechanism to exploit the ways that individuals deviate from rational choice in order to benefit themselves or society at large – for instance, by using our bias toward the status quo to encourage employees to put more of their paychecks into savings.

This benefits employees because it means they will be able to afford to live when they hit hard times, as state provision such as unemployment support and pensions have been incrementally cut away to almost nothing. The powers that be in the UK regard any kind of welfare provision as a “perverse incentive”. This benefits the government because if everyone pays for their own pension, periods of unemployment, sickness and so on, then the government can spend your national insurance contributions and taxes on other things. Like very wealthy people’s tax cuts. 

The privatisation of choice and consent

Power is defined in the social sciences as the ability to influence (“soft power”) or shape and outright control the behaviour of people (“hard power”). Attempts by a government to shape and control the behaviour of citizens (including the targeting of specific social groups), either via policies or by brute force, isn’t generally considered to be compatible with democracy, social justice or notions of inclusion.

Thaler and Sunstein have claimed that governments always influence citizens’ behaviours. We have laws to deter clearly defined crimes such as murder, theft and so on. However, those laws are clearly stated and citizens are aware of their purpose and that they aim to control socially harmful behaviours. They are transparent. Most people would  agree that they are necessary to protect citizens, and most are aware of the probable consequences of being found breaking those laws.

These are overt attempts to dissuade people from behaving in potentially harmful ways towards others and wider society generally tends to endorse them, regarding them as necessary. Such laws permit us to engage our rational processes precisely because they are visible to us. Nudge is designed to bypass our critical and rational capacities.

Nudge or “behavioural economics” is the attempt to shape people’s socioeconomic behaviours without people being aware of the process or the aim. Nudge ceases to work when people become aware that they are being nudged – it only works “in the dark”. 

The Nudge Unit was part-privatised in 2014, which means it is protected from public scrutiny.  It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and it can sue for libel.

Ian Dunt said at the time of the Nudge Unit’s privatisation: “The secrecy and legal might of private firms offering public services is morally indefensible whatever the sector. But in the case of nudge it is particularly dangerous, because this is an organisation specifically tasked with implementing policy on the subconscious of the British public.

However sympathetic we are to the goals nudge is trying to achieve – such as reducing car accidents or increasing tax collection – we should be deeply sceptical of its tactics, which involve influencing the public without them knowing it is happening.

This is what makes nudge so toxic an idea. While it seems more liberal than using legislation to clamp down on unhealthy behaviour, it is actually more pernicious. At least when something is banned, you know you are being prevented from doing it. With nudge, you will never know.”

The application of nudge tends to be asymmetrical – is targeted disproportionately at poor citizens. This is because of the political belief – a weighted bias – that poor people are poor because they make “irrational” and “wrong” choice. Conversly, wealthy people are deemed “rational” precisely because they are wealthy. This is a line of teleological reasoning – rather than being causal explanation of the phenomenon of inequality, the aims, ends, or intentions of the observed phenomenon or behaviour are used to explain the process. Teleology refers to a view that justifies certain phenomena, which are explained by reference to their purposes.  The Conservatives see inequality as functional, because it “encourages competition” and serves as an “incentive”. Social scientific arguments among positivists in particular quite often rest on rational short cuts like this. This short cut is a weighted bias that becomes embedded in the process of how particular areas of research are chosen, how the research is designed, and how interpretation of the results and conclusions are framed. Rather than the “scientific method” in social research serving to ensure value neutrality, quite often it simply distils the ideological premises of it.

Nudge reduces a persons’ choices to one choice – that of the state or “choice architects”. Nudge tends to draw on punishments, threats of punishment and negative reinforcements to change the behaviours of poor people – such as those embedded in welfare conditionality and sanctions, which exploit a cognitive bias we have, apparently, called “loss aversion”

Something that the government and libertarian paternalists choose to ignore is that it is poverty itself that restricts choices, not poor people’s cognitive “abilities” or decision-making. A good example is how the use of credit scoring ultimately leads to the poorest people having to pay the most interest on credit, if they manage to get any at all. Being poor limits our choices for credit, and other ways out of financial hardship. It’s difficult to find work that pays an adequate wage to support an adequate standard of living, especially when you have so few resources that you can’t meet all of your basic needs, let alone pay your broadband bill and meet travel costs.

It’s a very dangerously slippery slope when a group of technocrats claim they have perfected the art of knowing what is best for us, and what our best interests are, especially when it is especially geared towards the political goal of fulfilling “small state” ideology. 

Psychopaths see others as a means to an end, they also like to define other people’s “best interests”. They use justification narratives for their behaviours to manipulate people, which are often plausible, but ultimately, this is simply to get their own way.

Similarly, the Conservatives’ use of nudge reflects their ideological agenda, and their justification narratives reflect an authoritarian turn. 

The rise of nudge refects a miserly neoliberal government with an ideological agenda

If people who are poor are struggling with decision-making, then nudging people – even if “opt out” provision is made (and it generally isn’t) – without their knowledge or informed consent cannot be justified as a “non intrusive” intervention, as behavioural economists try to argue. Nudging reduces our autonomy and imposes a framework of psychological reductionism and determinism.

Nudge reflects a basic “stimulus-response” view of human shaping behaviour, except the word “incentive” has replaced “stimulus” in the old behaviourist terminology. Many behavioural economists talk about cognitive processes, and how flawed most people’s are. But nudge methodology reflects a behaviourist approach – there’s no opportunity for learning, and no consideration of human subjectivity – our inner states, meanings, understandings and so on – all that matters is getting people to comply and behave the way the “choice architects” think we should. Cause and effect.

Nudge was introduced as a policy strategy as a way of cutting costs. Libertarian paternalism is a political doctrine, and is therefore not value-neutral. However, libertarian paternalists argue that their methodology – Randomised Controlled Trials (RTCs) – validates their claim to value neutrality.  Behavioural economists argue that the evidence gathered from RTCs is a better, more reliable and valid form of knowledge than the knowledge of “experts”. But such knowledge is insufficient if it is abstracted from the political side of policymaking in which problems are framed and knowledge given meaning. Furthermore, the RTCs are used to add credibility to the theoretical knowledge of “experts”. But often, those presenting a case for evidence-based policies often ignore the multiplicity of evidence relevant to the policy in question. In this respect, RTCs may be used to filter out alternative accounts of the issue being addressed, and so justifying interventions that are inappropriate or may have unintended (or undeclared and ideologically determined, intended) consequences. 

RTCs are an effective way of determining whether or not a particular intervention has been successful at achieving a specific outcome. One significant concern is that RCTs  are being promoted as the ‘gold standard’ in a hierarchy of evidence that marginalises qualitative research, and the accounts of citizens’ experiences – crucial to a functioning democracy. The government has frequently dismissed citizens accounts of policy impacts as “anecdotal”, claiming that “no causal link” between policy and impact can be demonstrated. Given that some of these accounts have been first hand, and about serious harm caused by policy,  it’s easy to see how the use of  a”scientific methodology” so easily becomes a tool for stifling criticism, debate and a mechanism for political expediency. 

RTCs have been the standard of medical research, and are useful for establishing whether cause-effect relationships exist between treatments and outcomes and for assessing the cost effectiveness of a treatment. However, their use in influencing and quantifying an array of complex human behaviours marks a return of the determinism and reductionism that was central to behaviourist perspectives. 

We must also question the appropriateness of the use of a medical model to frame social problems. Poverty, inequality and the unequal distribution of power doesn’t happen because of some disease process: it is because of government policy and decision-making. No amount of blaming individual citizens’ decision-making and applying “behavioural medicine” to the victims of free neoliberal socioeconomics will remedy that. 

Behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to “internal” states -thoughts or feelings – and that psychological disorders are best treated “externally” by altering “faulty” behaviour patterns. Because nudge is used asymmetrically, and targets poor people disproportionately, it is founded on assumptions that reflect traditional prejudices and assumptions about the causes of poverty, and also serves to endorse and extend existing inequalities in wealth, resources and power. Nudge assummes that poor people’s decision-making is the cause of poverty, rather than institutionalised prejudices and the political decision-making that shapes our socioeconomic environment.

One of our fundamental freedoms as human beings is that of decision-making regarding our own lives and experiences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

Of course there are social and legal constraints on some intentions and actions, especially those that may result in harming others, and quite rightly so.

There are other constraints which limit choices, too, insofar that choices are context-bound. We don’t act in an infinite space of opportunities, alternatives, time, information, nor do we have limitless cognitive abilities, for example.

In other words, there are always some limitations on what we can choose to do, and we are further limited because our rationality is bounded. Most people accept this with few problems, because we are still left ultimately with the liberty to operate within those outlined parameters, some of which may be extended to a degree – our capacity for rationality and critical thinking, for example, can be learned and improved upon. But our thoughts, reflections, decisions and actions are our own, held within the realm of our own individual, unique experiences.

However, the government, and the group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” (employed at the “Nudge” Unit) claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our informed consent. “Compliance” is the defintely the governments’ buzzword. Compliance frameworks are embedded in our welfare system and most of our public services. 

Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty while still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests. However, since no-one can escape their bounds of their own subjectivity to find some mind-independent vantage point, and since all humans operate within a framework of bounded rationality, the behavioural economists’ claim to value-neutrality, and technocratic appeal to the validity of a “scientific” methodology doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The claim to an “objective” scientific methodology does nothing to compensate for the ideological perspectives of the researcher that invariably influence the choice of an area of study, or the nature of generated hypotheses that are tested in artificial environments – “laboratory” conditions. Isolated, tested, short-range hypotheses cannot tell us much about the vast array of complex processes involved in human decision-making, and take any meaningful account of the influence and depth of a cultural, political, social, economic and historical context. As such, they cannot provide a reliable basis for making inferences to real world circumstances.

The results depend on the interpretation and nature of the data used and the reason for the analysis in the first place. Simple causal explanations of behaviour embody reductionism and determinism – and therefore deny human autonomy. Bounded rationality is a theory that proposes we have limited choices, but behaviourist perspectives inform us that basically, we have none. 

Nudge doesn’t take into account that political decision-making also succumbs to the limits of bounded rationality, and that socioeconomic policies impact upon citizens, rather than citizens making choices – “right” or “wrong” ones – about our socioeconomic organisation.  

Medical RCTs are done within the confine a strict ethical framework, with informed consent being central to that framework. The government is conducting experiments on the population without their informed consent. There are no ethical safeguards in place to monitor and acknowledge any potential harm that arises as a consequence of nudging. This is precisely why there is a  need to incorporate qualitative insights into RTCs used to test pubic policy interventions. 

Nudge ignores the negative impact of the attitudes and behaviours of the wealthy and powerful on society

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“People who are poorer should be prepared to take the biggest risks; they’ve got least to lose.” Lord Freud, 2012

The risk-taking and greedy behaviours of wealthy people caused a global financial crash, which has ultimately led to countries like the UK imposing austerity on the poorest citizens. Excess in risk taking by and excessive leverage of banks meant that the finance class ignored externalities and relied on bail-outs by the government following the crisis.

The incentive structure of banks encouraged strategies that increased aggregate risk in the economy, and regulators allowed banks to use their own models to calculate and report riskiness. Deregulation is at the core of the 2008 Financial Crisis. The attempt to decrease government involvement in the financial system backfired. Ultimately, deregulation put depositors, consumers, and banks at risk. Those paying the price for the decision-making behaviours of those in positions of power are the poorest citizens. Austerity has been used as a diversion from where the responsibility for the banking crisis lies, and has become a mechanism of administering disipline and ensuring the conformity of the poorest citizens.

Yet their remains a widespread lack of concern for the financial system’s risk to the economy. No lessons appear to have been learned, and no-one is concerned with “changing the behaviours” of the perpetrators of the global recession.

“If we must talk about “poor choices” then we have to address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices made by the Poor.” Hubert Huzzah

Austerity measures have caused an unacceptable level of harmhardship and absolute poverty – lacking the means to meet basic survival needs, such as food, fuel and shelter – that we haven’t witnessed as a society since before the establishment of the post-war welfare state. We have also witnessed the violation of the human rights of some socially marginalised groups. This point indicates to me that it isn’t poor people who need “behaviour change” programmes: it’s the rich and powerful who create adverse or “pathological” socioeconomic circumstances and events

“Nudge” bears the hallmark of oppression and is symptom of an authoritarian state. It permits those whose decisions have truly devastating impacts on others and our society to simply carry on doing as they choose, whilst punishing those who are blameless, powerless and don’t participate in decisions regarding how our society is organised. 

As such, nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s a technocratic fix to a socioeconomic system that is not only failing, it’s causing distress and harming many citizens.

Nudge addresses the needs of policy-makers. Not the wider public. The behaviourist educational function, made patronisingly explicit by the Nudge Unit, is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, institutionalised attitudes and behaviours, in schools, in forms of “expertise”, and even through the state’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narrative.

Thaler acknowledges that regardless of the original intentions, nudge may be skewed by governments, organisations or individuals looking to capitalise on the cognitive biases of people. Whenever he is asked to sign a copy of his book , he writes “nudge for good” which is a plea, he says, to improve the lives of people and avoid “insidious behaviour.”

In the UK, choice architects work to simply maintain the status quo. Therefore nudge doesn’t and cannot offer us any scope for improving people’s lives.

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Grenfell is a stark monument to the systematic disempowerment of citizens because of the decisions made by the architects of neoliberal policies and the utter disregard and negligence of those in positions of power.

Residents of Grenfell Tower had previously raised serious concerns that a catastrophic event could happen. It did. An action group of Grenfell residents said their warnings fell on “deaf ears” after highlighting major safety concerns about the block. The neoliberalisation of the housing market entailed councils part-privatising public housing – putting them into housing associations or ALMOs (arms length management organisations). This management arrangement was distant and remote – a bureaucratic mechanism rather than a democratic community organisation. 

Austerity was (re)introduced in 2010. Public and social housing budgets were slashed and housing associations encouraged to become more commercial and borrow from banks instead of receiving public funding. At the same time, social security and funding for local government were dramatically cut back. In London alone, 10 fire stations, 27 fire engines and more than 600 firefighters have been lost to cuts since 2010. These undermined emergency responses and efforts to prevent fires by inspecting buildings and taking enforcement action under fire safety regulations.

Government hostility to regulation played a significant role in the unfolding of this terrible tragedy. Following a smaller fatal 2009 fire in South London, a series of recommendations including installing sprinkler systems and reviewing the “stay put” advice given to residents living in higher floors in the event of a fire. These recommendations were sat on, ignored, and delayed despite efforts from parliamentarians and campaigners, and even the magazine representing housing professionals. The requirement to carry out a Fire Risk Safety Assessment by the Fire Brigade was changed to make it the responsibility of landlords – Kensington and Chelsea Council opted to use the cheapest company available to them. 

These assessments are not transparent or public and are now the subject of huge public scrutiny along with the series of decisions that led to Grenfell Tower being “re-clad” in the cheap material that facilitated the rapid spread of the fire.

What is clear is that government decision-making, the ideology of deregulation, of privatising, of austerity, combined to kill people in their homes. Their safety and their lives were not valued by the government nor the system they put in place, nor were their voices heard until it was far too late. 

If we must talk about “poor choices” then we must address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices” made by the poorest and most disempowered citizens.arnstein-ladder-citizenship-participation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation and Power

Related

The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

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

 

I’m currently writing a longer and more in-depth critique of behavioural economics, which will be published very soon.

 


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. But you can help by making a donation to help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated – thank you.

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