Tag: New Right

Worklessness is not a trait: why blaming and shaming is not a solution – Mireia Borrell-Porta

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The recent controversy around the book The Welfare Trait is part of a long-standing debate on whether poverty is caused by structure or behaviour, writes Mireia Borrell-Porta, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford.

Here, she offers her own reading of the book and explains why claiming benefits is not simply a question of personality; instead, a number of other factors – including structural economic and environmental – need to be taken into account.

Mireia also cites my own article – Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism  – and like me, she draws a parallel with Adam Perkins’s basic antiwelfarist proposition and the New Right supremicist thinking of Charles Murray.

She says: “‘The Welfare Trait’ by Adam Perkins is currently the subject of controversial debate on mainstream and social media. Having been praised (albeit with some nuances) by the Adam Smith Institute and the Spectator, it has been criticised by The Equality Trust and the Guardian among others. The book’s main argument is that welfare benefits are a ‘production line of unfit children’, and that the welfare state is gradually making new generations ‘resistant to employment.’  This is the result of two phenomena, according to Perkins. First, benefits have the effect of increasing childbirth in workless households more than in working ones. Second, individuals with ‘employment-resistant’ personalities are over-represented among welfare claimants, who then pass these ‘inconvenient traits’ on to their children, making them also less likely to work.”

Mireia goes on to say: “Perkins’ argument is also reminiscent of American conservativism from the mid-1970s. A prominent voice at the time was that of political scientist Charles Murray who, concerned with the fact that poverty in the 1970s did not decline and even rose slightly, grew convinced that the culprits were the decline of the husband-wife family and the drop in work levels among the poor. These trends, he argued, were to be traced to a shift in behaviour on the part of individuals who suffered from poverty. He suggested that individuals are generally rational and make their decisions on work and having children depending on the economic incentives of the time. By increasing or decreasing benefits, the welfare state affects such incentives.

In his later writings, personal character was added to these explanations, leading to his claims that the welfare state not only generated perverse incentives, but also enabled certain people to behave as they ‘naturally’ wanted to behave (i.e. allowing them not to work if they did not want to). Personal character was therefore relevant, and at the same time welfare incentives could have a long-term (detrimental) effect on them. His solution was radical: abolish poverty programmes.”

She concludes: “Anyone studying the relationship between behaviour, character or personality and employment should take these variables into account before claiming that ‘the welfare state becomes a production line for damaged kids’. Because, with parental and children behaviour being influenced by the amount of financial resources in a household, the reasonable approach is not to decrease the level of benefits, as Perkins suggests; this is a case for increasing them.”

You can read this excellent artice in full on the LSE site.

Mireia Borrell-Porta is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford. She completed her PhD at the European Institute at the LSE and holds an MSc in European Political Economy from LSE and a BSc in Economics from Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Mireia’s main research interests focus on the interplay between social norms and economic incentives and their joint impact on individual behaviour. Her areas of interest are social policy, and family policy in particular, and political economy. 

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The myth of meritocracy

Related

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

Essentialising marginalised groups and using stigmatising personality constructs to justify dismantling social security is not “science”, it’s psychopolitics

Antisocial personality and lack of conscientiousness is correlated with bogus anti-welfare research

This is an interesting take on Perkins’s book, (and also references my own work –  Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism.)

The article is by sociologist Daniel Nehring: Manufactured Controversy: Adam Perkins, the Psychological Imagination and the Marketing of Scholarship

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Essentialising marginalised groups and using stigmatising personality constructs to justify dismantling social security is not “science”, it’s psychopolitics

 

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“It’s fear of the political-correctness brigade that has stopped my colleagues going public — quite sensibly, as it turns out. But I felt I owed it to the taxpayers who are funding the welfare state to publish these data.” Adam Perkins.

Tax payers who “fund the welfare state” are not a discrete class of citizens: most of them come to rely on it as a safety net to ensure they can meet their basic needs at some time in their life. Those currently claiming  social security benefits, who are not all of the same people who did last year or the year before, still contribute to one of the largest sources of revenue for the Treasury – VAT and other stealth taxes, such as council tax. In fact almost all benefits are paid back as taxes. The biggest beneficiaries of welfare are those employed to administrate it, especially the growing number of private sector “providers”.

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

The problem of discrete disciplinary discursive practices and idiomatic semantics, each presenting the problem of complex internal rules of interpretation, was seemingly sidestepped by Perkins, who transported himself with apparent ease simply on leaps of semantic faith to doggedly pursue and reach his neoliberal destination. He is certainly very fluent in the language of New Right Conservatism, it has to be said. I’m certain he must be very good friends with Charles Murray, of the Bell Curve fame during the Thatcher and Reagan era..

Many from across the political spectrum have objected to Perkins’s book because of the strong whiff of eugenics and social Darwinism that has hit the fan, along with the stench of the long-rotten corpse of Nazism. The atrocities associated with essentialising social groups – attributing “natural”, essential characteristics to members of specific culturally defined groups (based on gender, age, ethnic, “racial”, socioeconomic status, for example) – were thought to be long buried under the brutal and horrifying lessons of history, and quite properly considered taboo.

When societies essentialise others, it is assumed that individual differences can be explained by “inherent”, biological, “natural” characteristics shared by members of a group. Essentialising results in thinking, speaking and acting in ways that promote stereotypical and inaccurate interpretations of individual differences. It invariably involves political discourse that decontextualises structural inequality, using narrative that “relocates” it, coercing the responsibility, internalisation and containment of social problems within some individuals and groups. This always involves processes of projection, stigmatising, outgrouping and scapegoating.

Essentialist thinking is anchored in binary conceptual schema – simplistic and dualistic (two-categories: either this – or that) modes of thought. Both classic and contemporary social theorists have identified and challenged essentialist and dualistic ways of thinking about the social world. Essentialising targets and stigmatises minority groups who historically do not have equal access to power in the cultural production and validation of “knowledge”.

In Perkins’s previous co-authored work – Personality and occupational markers of ‘solid citizenship’ are associated with having fewer children, which is a study of associations between personality and reproductive fitness, he claims that such associations may reveal the adaptive significance of human behavioural traits. He says: “What we dub ‘solid-citizenship’ personality characteristics such as self-control, diligence and responsibility may repay study from an evolutionary perspective as they protect against negative life-outcomes.” 

“Perkins et al. tend to regard risk as a synonym of probability and so equate evolutionary fitness with moral hazard.Hubert Huzzah.

Low conscientiousness, criminality, low educational attainment, low occupational status, extraversion, neuroticism, catholicism, a lack of diligence, responsibility, self control and other assigned personality characteristics are then linked with contraception use, and conflated with low socioeconomic status and negative life-outcomes that are curiously isolated from a wider socioeconomic context.

Again, the very idea that citizenship is defined by certain perceived personal qualities associated with conformity and Conservative values indicates Perkins’s tendency to politicise concepts of human “nature”, and conflate them with New Right narratives, reflected in his interests, choice of research topics and demonstrated in the framing of his conclusions. This reflects a wider current tendency towards the political medicalisation of social problems, which shifts public attention from the sociopolitical and economic context of inequality, poverty and social injustice to politically inculpated, marginalised outgroups.

I have written a lengthy critique of Adam Perkin’s controversial book called “The Welfare Trait.” Whilst I have criticised the work because of its quite blatant partisan ideological, political and economic inception and framing, I have also raised other important issues regarding problematic underpinning assumptions, which include commiting a fallacy of inventing fictitious proximal causes for behaviour, such as “perverse incentives,” problems with constructs of personality and difficulties measuring behaviour traits.

Much of the current understanding of personality from a neurobiological perspective places an emphasis on the biochemistry of the behavioural systems of reward, motivation, and punishment. But those are largely extrinsic factors, located, for example, in political and socioeconomic environments, external to the individual, who responds to their context. This theoretical stance is therefore both limited in terms of depth and explanatory coherence and limiting in terms of generating understanding – the study lacks comprehensiveness and methodological rigour – there is very little consideration of confounding variables, for example, which hinders further potential investigation and discovery. It also reflects in part a re-platforming of an over-simplistic Pavlovian behaviourism. Definition and theory of the biological basis of personality is not universally accepted. There are many conflicting theories of personality in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, and neuroscience.

Perkins implies that welfare somehow creates personality disorders and “undesirable” traits. However, such pathologies are defined by experiences and behaviours that differ from societal norms and expectations.

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

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

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

Perkins also conflates descriptive statements with prescriptive ones. Moral conclusions can’t be drawn from non-moral premises. In other words, just because someone claims to have knowledge of how the world is or how groups of people are (descriptive statements), this doesn’t automatically prove or demonstrate that he or she knows how the world ought to be (prescriptive statements).

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

Perkins does nothing to consider, isolate and explore confounding variables regarding the behaviours and responses of people needing social security support. He claims our current level of support is too high. However empirical evidence clearly indicates it is set far too low to meet people’s physiological needs fully.

Poverty affects people’s mental health as well as their physical health. There is a weight of empirical evidence confirming that food deprivation and income insecurity are profoundly psychologically harmful as well as physiologically damaging. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example.) Describing people’s anger, despondency and distress at their circumstances as “antisocial” is profoundly oppressive. The draconian policies that contribute to creating those circumstances are antisocial, not the people impacted by those policies.

Climbing Allport’s Ladder of Prejudice

Since writing my own response to The Welfare Trait I have encountered a surprisingly high number of people in the UK who believe that anyone who can’t work should be left with no money at all to meet their basic survival needs. To clarify, that means they think that not everyone should have a fundamental right to life. My work was labelled “hysterical dogma” by one commentator on the Adam Smith Institute website. I have been very struck by how normalised social Darwinism and related perspectives have become over the last few years, again. And how people that disagree with those views are defined, increasingly as the other. Along with the growing number of other politically defined others. It’s a symptom of an increasingly authoritarian climate.

I was called a “politically correct bleeding heart leftard” by a eugenics advocate on the Telegraph comments section, and was truly baffled that someone could see social conscience, a sense of justice, basic, ordinary qualities of caring, empathy and compassion as somehow pathological qualities. It’s also remarkable that a group of people who claim that sanctions, which entail the removal of people’s means of meeting basic survival needs is “helping” or “supporting” people into work, somehow “fair” and about “making work pay” feel they can lecture anyone else on appropriate language choices, techniques of neutralisation, modes of linguistic behaviourism and censorship.

I have always felt strongly that we have a democratic duty to protect marginalised groups and look out for the cultural underdog –  it’s the oppressed that are denied a voice, their rights, autonomy and identity, not the oppressors. Underdogs are generally seen as casualties of injustice or persecution. They are also most often predicted to be losers in a struggle.

Of course not all underdogs remain underdogs. J.K. Rowling, a lone mother claiming social security, who wrote seven of the best-selling books of all time, created a vulnerable, lovable underdog character, Harry Potter – an oppressed but passionate orphan with character, modesty, integrity and all the best of human qualities. He grew up in a cupboard, wearing oversized hand-me-down clothes and doing accidental bursts of magic to get by. He came to face and fight the forces of evil that had oppressed and terrorised two generations of wizards and witches, and non-magical folk alike.

Jo Rowling had a very difficult seven-year period that left her coping with the death of her mother, who had multiple sclerosis, severe depression, the birth of her first child, divorce from her first husband and relative poverty until she finished the first novel in the series.

What is remarkable about Rowling isn’t her “rags to riches” success, though that is undoubtedly a commendable achievement: it’s the social, moral, and political inspiration she has given to so many, young and old alike, that really stands out, and her considerable philanthropy.

Rowling said: “I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world. So you have the intent to impose a hierarchy, you have bigotry, and this notion of purity, which is this great fallacy, but it crops up all over the world. People like to think themselves superior and that if they can pride themselves in nothing else they can pride themselves on perceived purity.

Defining a group’s superiority and purity always means defining others as “inferior.”

But is it not normal to care about such issues? Surely that is how we relate to others, our inclination to bond originating from relationships within our families and with significant others, extending to wider communities, and to society as a whole? Yet this way of seeing the world is being pathologised by a growing number of people who see the world only in terms of hierarchies of status and human worth: a raw, “red in tooth and claw” competitive individualism, and always, it seems, for what they can get, how much they can profit and how much they can take from others, rather than what they can give to society.

The general public over the past 5 years have been generally treated by a government of elitist, antidemocratic, cognitive and class supremicists as a political means to an end. Meanwhile people raising genuine concerns about corruption, greed, the stigmatisation of minorities and the growing human rights abuses of marginalised social groups, authoritarianism and so on are ostracised, treated with scorn, ridicule and contempt, and turned into the growing number of Conservative folk devil constructs.

Names such as “extremists”, “raving trot” “loony leftie” “leftard” are bandied around so much now that those using the labels have lost sight of the fact that these are offensive and rude. The really worrying thing is my views are hardly extreme or remotely  radical  – I’m no “commie.” Most people on the political Left are just regular people wanting regular fairness, social justice, equal rights for all, an end to cruel and unnecessary cuts which target only the poorest, and an end to such crass socioeconomic policies that result in massive inequality and poverty. How did being so normal become so non-mainstreamed?

How can it possibly be that to care for the wellbeing of others in our society, and the kind of world our children will inherit from us is somehow wrong, that values of cooperation, mutual aid and compassion are not the norm, that taking a clear ethical position is something to be ashamed of or a reason to be mocked?

The Conservatives have a moralising, rather than a moral political position, and have you noticed that Tory moralising only ever applies to the poorest people and invariably generates public prejudice, discriminatory policies and fosters social divisions?

Political Correctness

It’s a sure sign that the Right have no arguments and critical reasoning to support their fundamental ideological position, that whenever their partisan narratives are challenged by our own narrative, then we are met with blatant attempts to close down debate by a barrage of nasty, resentful, immature name-calling and outrage that is thrown at anyone and everyone that challenges the cultural, epistemological and right-wing ontological status quo and neoliberal doxa.

Some people use the “freedom of speech” plea to justify their prejudice. They say they have a right to express their thoughts. However, speech is an intentional ACT. Hate speech is intended to do harm – it’s used purposefully to intimidate and exclude marginalised, disempowered and vulnerable groups. Hate speech does not “democratise” speech, it tends to monopolise it. Nor is it based on reason, critical thinking or open to debate. Bigotry is a crass parody of opinion and free speech. Furthermore, bigots are conformists – they tend not to have independent thought. Prejudice thrives on Groupthink.

Being inequitable, petty, resentful, vindictive and prejudiced isn’t “being truthful” or “telling it like it is” – a claim which is an increasingly common tactic for the Right – it’s just being inequitable, petty, resentful and prejudiced. And some things are not worth saying. We do have an equal right to express an opinion, but not all opinions are of equal worth. Free speech carries with it some responsibilities.

And the right-wing do frequently dally with hate speech. Hate speech generally is any speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of their race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. Critics have argued that the term “hate speech” is a contemporary example of Newspeak, used to silence critics of social policies that have been poorly implemented in order to appear politically correct.

However, “political correctness” was adopted by US  New Right Conservatives as a pejorative term for all manner of attempts to promote civil rights, multiculturalism and identity politics, particularly, attempts to introduce new terms that sought to leave behind discriminatory baggage attached to older ones, and conversely, to try to make older ones taboo.

Importantly, political correctness arose originally from attempts at making language more culturally inclusive. Critics of political correctness show a curious blindness when it comes to examples of “Conservative correctness.” Most often, the case is entirely ignored, or censorship of the Left is justified as a positive virtue. Perhaps the key argument supporting this form of linguistic and conceptual inclusion is that we still need it, unfortunately. We have a right-wing Logocracy, creating pseudo-reality by prejudicial and discimatory narrative and words. We are witnessing that narrative being embedded in extremely oppressive policies and in their justification.

The negative impacts of hate speech cannot be mitigated by the responses of third-party observers, as hate speech aims at two goals. Firstly, it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone. It validates and reinforces prejudice.

The second purpose of hate speech is to intimidate a targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. In many cases, such intimidation is successful. Furthermore, hate speech is a gateway to harassment and violence. (See Allport’s scale of prejudice, which shows clearly how the Nazis used “freedom of speech” to incite hatred and then to incite genocide.) As Allport’s scale indicates, hate speech and incitement to genocide start from often subtle expressions of prejudice, which advance culturally by almost inscrutable degrees.

The dignity, worth and equality of every individual is the axiom of international human rights. International law condemns statements which deny the equality of all human beings. Article 20(2) of the ICCPR requires states to prohibit hate speech. Hate speech is prohibited by international and national laws, not because it is offensive, but rather, because it amounts to the intentional degradation and repression of groups that have been historically oppressed.

The most effective way to diffuse prejudice is an early preventative approach via dialogue: positive parenting, education and debate. Our schools, media and public figures have a vital part to play in positive role-modelling, like parents, in challenging bigotry, encouraging social solidarity, respect for diversity and in helping to promote understanding and empathy with others.

Hate speech categories are NOT about “disagreement” or “offence.” Hate speech doesn’t invite debate. It’s about using speech to intentionally oppress others. It escalates when permitted, into harassment and violence. We learned this from history, and formulated human rights as a consequence. In this context, political correctness is about inclusive free speech, with rationality, critical thinking, democratic civility and a degree of mutual respect chucked in.

I’m proud to be a part of an ethical, rational, reasonable, decent and civilised Left-wing.

And politically correct?

Damn right I am.

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Freedom of speech isn’t about shouting the loudest, trying to intimidate, silence and disempower others or having the last word.

 

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Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

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“Behavioural theory is a powerful tool for the government communicator, but you don’t need to be an experienced social scientist to apply it successfully to your work.”
Alex Aiken
Executive Director of
Government Communications

Normalising state punishment 

Conservative anti-welfare discourse excludes the structural context of unemployment and poverty from public conversation by transforming these social problems into individual pathologies of “welfare dependency” and “worklessness.” The consequence is an escalating illogic of authoritarian policy measures which have at their core the intensification of punitive conditionality. These state interventions are justified by the construction and mediation of stigma, which is directed at already marginalised social groups that the policies target. The groups, which include sick and disabled people, people who are unemployed, are painted with a Malthusian brush, as a  “burden on the state” and a drain on what are politically portrayed and publicly seen as scarce resources in an era of austerity. Political processes of scapegoating, stigmatisation and outgrouping have been amplified by a largely complicit UK corporate media. 

Such policies and interventions are then rationalised as innovative and new political and economic responses. Behavioural economics theories, which “nudge” is a part of, for example, are aimed at “changing the behaviours” of citizens perceived to “make the wrong choices” – ultimately the presented political aim is to mend Britain’s supposedly “broken society” and to restore a country that “lives within its means”, according to a narrow, elitist view, bringing about a neoliberal utopia built on “economic competitiveness” in a “global race.”  

Disadvantage has become an individualised, private matter: it has been politically reduced and is explained as a private, internal characteristic of disadvantaged individuals, rather than it being an inevitable feature of a socioeconomic form of organisation founded on competitive individualism. This allows the state to depoliticise it, making disadvantage the private and sole responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach to changing citizen’s behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes. 

Institutions structure political struggles, they provide models, schemas and scripts for citizen’s behaviours. Bureaucratic norms within the welfare state have become increasingly about moral rectification. Debate about addressing structural inequality and poverty has been transformed into political rhetoric about behavioural incentives to change what are deemed to be poor people’s biased attitudes, cognitive deficits and faulty actions. Apparently, wealthy people don’t have these flaws. 

Welfare dependency is now a synonym for poverty, with its perceived dimensions of moral/psychological dependency accepted as a character “trait” or a “personality disorder.”  The sociopolitical relations of subordination, exploitation and economic organisation that were hidden within the discourse of “dependency” have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty. 

Context

Narratives about social security in the UK that emphasise a deepening of neoliberalisation became particularly virulent in the context of the global economic crash, which raised threats to the New Right neoliberal hegemony.

In August 2008, James Purnell, then Work and Pensions secretary, ordered a review of welfare to cut costs. The review explored how behavioural economics (nudge) may be used to “motivate” those claiming  welfare support and to establish what the “right conditions” are for the long-term unemployed or to deal with those thought to be “abusing the system.”

The review also addressed issues such as how people’s aversion to loss could be used to reduce the claimant count, which included consideration of the loss of high regard in the community; respect for legitimate authority; reciprocity – including a sense of obligation to give something back – and finally, “social proof” (using normative setting) – responding to the behaviour of others, such as their successful search for work.

Following some targeted survey work carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions, it was claimed that more than half of claimants say they are more likely to look for work because of the threat of sanctions. It was also suggested that attaching more stringent conditions to welfare could draw on the then latest British interest in nudge economics, and the “hidden art of persuasion.” This took place in a context of other European countries and the US exploring similar radical welfare reforms. (See also: Experiments on Unemployment Benefit Sanctions and Job Search Behaviour, 2004).

However, the direct evidence on the impact of sanctions largely concerns how it affected the compliance; rule-following job seeking behaviour and employment rates of those who have actually experienced or been formally warned of a sanction. However, how “employment rates” are actually measured poses a problem, as, in the UK, an outcome of employment is assumed if someone’s claim is closed.

Several US studies have used high quality designs to analyse differences in post-welfare outcomes and found that, on average, those who are sanctioned out of the welfare system are less likely to enter employment than those who leave for other reasons. Sanctioned welfare leavers are more likely to experience severe hardship and some become disconnected from income and other support systems.

Purnell resigned in 2009, as Gordon Brown refused to implement his neoliberal welfare proposals. The Nudge Unit was established and formally instituted as part of the Cabinet in 2010, under Cameron’s coalition government.

I’ve written more than one critical piece about the Government’s part-privatised Nudge Unit – the Behavioural Insights Team – particularly its insidious and malevolent influence on the range of psychocratic policies aimed at “behavioural changes” which are now being imposed on the poorest citizens. 

From the shrinking category of legitimate “disability” to forcing people to work for no pay on exploitative workfare schemes, “nudge” has been used to euphemistically frame punitive policies, “applying the principles of behavioural economics to the important issue of the transition from welfare to work.” (See: Employing BELIEF:Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, 2010.)

The Conservatives have claimed to make welfare provision “fair” by introducing substantial cuts to benefits and harsh conditionality requirements regarding eligibility to social security, including the frequent use of extremely punitive benefit sanctions as a means of “changing behaviours,” and “incentivising” people to find work, highlighting plainly that the Conservatives regard unemployment and disability as some kind of personal deficit on the part of those who are, in reality, simply casualties of structural constraints; labor market conditions, exclusion from acceptable living standards because of cuts to income and rising living costs, bad political decision-making and subsequent policy-shaped socioeconomic circumstances.

The word “fair” originally meant “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.” Under the Conservatives, we have witnessed more than one manipulated semantic shift, words like “fair” , “support” , “reform” , “responsibility”, “opportunities” and “help” , for example, have become embedded in a narrative of superficial  Glittering Generalities – part of a lexicon of persuasion and precarious psychosemantics that simply prop up Tory ideology  – an idiom of belief – in an endlessly erroneous, irrational and self-referential way.

The problem is that the power of a system of such implicit beliefs to defeat valid objections one by one is entirely due to the circularity  and self-perpetuating nature of such systems, as Iain Duncan Smith, who stands firmly within this idiom, consistently demonstrates only too well. After being rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority (ONS) for his claim that his policies have “forced 8,000 benefit claimants back into work” in 2013, he was informed politely that this wasn’t empirically evidenced – his claim could not be proven with his statistics. His response was: “I have a belief that I am right […] you cannot disprove what I said.” His “theory” tells him what he may observe.

There is a gulf between the rhetoric and empirical evidence on benefit sanctions. The evidence base is both small and limited in its scope, and it does not accommodate the differing approaches to preventing poverty and promoting opportunity that arise in international policy design. Increased welfare conditionality and sanctions are too narrowly based on a rhetoric of moral(ising) philosophy, and takes a highly selective approach evidence.

Iain Duncan Smith is the expert Tory pop-psychologist, fluent in psychobabble words like “incentivise” and “behavioural change” and whilst he demands rigorous research standards from academics and his critics, he doesn’t ever uphold those same standards himself.

If you “just know” you’re right, then does it matter if you regularly make up the evidence to support your mighty powers of New Right and very neoliberal intuitions?  It ought to, and it would if Conservative policy was genuinely based on meeting public needs, evidence and objective measures of effectiveness, rather than being based on prejudice and political expediency.

Words like “fair” and “help” now signpost an intentionally misleading Conservative discourse. Nudge permeates language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help” “justice” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.

The Conservatives have orchestrated semantic shifts which reflect neoliberal values and reference a distinctive New Right ideological repertoire, from which is constructed basic pseudo-scientific justification narratives, asserting that people claiming welfare do so, as I said previously, because of “faulty” personal characteristics and various types of cognitive incompetence and laziness. In short, the government have pathologised and stigmatised unemployment, redefining it as a psychological disorder.

The government have also problematised welfare, based on the absurd New Right idea that financial support when people really need it somehow creates problems, rather than it being an essential mechanism aimed at alleviating poverty, extending social and economic support, justice and opportunities: social insurance and security

The government have adopted a strongly disciplinarian approach to structural problems such as poverty, using narratives that are strikingly reminiscent of the attitudes and values that shaped the extremely punitive and ill-conceived 1834 Poor Law amendment act.

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

Restricting choices to “choice”

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare “conditionality” in 2012. Sanctions are based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – a cognitive bias called “loss aversion.” It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of behavioural deficits.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution.

Libertarian paternalists claim that whilst it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of coercive, draconian Conservative welfare sanctions.

Last year I wrote about the connection between the Nudge Unit’s pseudoscientific obsession with manipulating people’s decision-making by utilising various cognitive bias theories – in this case, particularly, the behavioural economic theory of loss aversion and the increased use and severity of benefit sanctions. Though most people succumbing to the Nudge Unit’s guru effect (ironically, another cognitive bias) think that “nudging” is just about prompting men to pee on the right spot in urinals, or about persuading us to donate organs and to pay our taxes on time. Nudge is at the very heart of the New  Right’s neo-behaviourist turn, which entails the application of operant conditioning to individualise and privatise social problems such as inequality and poverty. 

When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive. It’s a cognitive bias, if you will.

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – read this paper, focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions, paying particular attention to the part about loss aversion, on page 7.

And this on page 18: The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it,” and page 46: “Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (e.g.the sanctions regime).”

The recommendation on that page: We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit.”

The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as disabled people.

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and the extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012.

Sanctioning welfare recipients by removing their lifeline benefit – originally calculated to meet the cost of only basic survival needs – food, fuel and shelter – isn’t about “arranging choice architecture”, it’s not nudging: it’s operant conditioning. It’s a brand of particularly dystopic, psychopolitical behaviourism, and is all about a totalitarian level of micromanaging people to ensure they are obedient and compliant to the needs of  the “choice architects” and policy-makers. Nudge in this context is nothing more than a prop for austerity, neoliberalism and social conservatism.

It is all-pervasive, nudge permeates political rhetoric and discursive practices. Words like “help” and “support” disguise coercive and punitive state actions. Bland language is used to normalise inequality and discriminatory political practices. The word “incentivise,” for example, is used a lot by the Conservatives, but to wealthy people, it means financial privileges in the form of tax cuts and privatised wealth, and to poor people, it means having lifeline income taken away by the state. 

Deploying behavioural modification techniques (and without the public’s consent) marginalises political discussion, stifles public debate, sidesteps democratic dialogue, problem-solving, criticism and challenges and forecloses the possibility of social justice considerations.

Furthermore, an individual’s autonomy, which is also the basis of his or her dignity, as a person, is worthy of protection and should not be interfered with by any kind of behavioural modification, “nudge” or otherwise. Nor should removing people’s lifeline income designed to meet only basic survival needs ever be withdrawn as a state “correction” and punishment.

Nudge operates at a much broader level, too. The intentional political construction of folk devils and purposeful culturally amplified references to a stereotype embodying fecklessness, idleness and irresponsibility, utilising moral panic and manufactured public outrage as an effective platform for punitive welfare reform legislation, is one example of the value-laden application of pseudoscientific “behavioural insights” theory. The new paternalists have drawn on our psychosocial inclinations towards conformity, which is evident in the increasing political use of manipulative normative messaging. (For example, see: The Behavioral Insights Team in the U.K. used social normative messages to increase tax compliance in 2011.) 

The paternalist’s behavioural theories have been used to increasingly normalise a moral narrative based on a crude underpinning “deserving” and “undeserving” dichotomy, that justifies state interventions imposing conditions of extreme deprivation amongst some social groups – especially those previously considered legally protected. Public rational and moral boundaries have been and continue to be nudged and shifted, incrementally. Gordon Allport outlined a remarkably similar process in his classic political psychology text, The Nature of Prejudice, which describes the psychosocial processes involved in the construction of categorical others, and the subsequent escalating scale of prejudice and discrimination

In the UK, the growth and institutionalisation of prejudice and discrimination is reflected in the increasing tendency towards the  transgression of international legal human rights frameworks at the level of public policy-making. Policies that target protected social groups with moralising, stereotypical normative messages, accompanied with operant disciplinary measures, have led to extremely negative and harmful outcomes, but there is a marked political and social indifference to the serious implications and consequences of the impacts of such policies .

The theory tells you what you may observe

There is no evidence that welfare sanctions improve employment outcomes. There is no evidence that sanctions “change behaviours.” There is, in any case, a substantial difference between people conforming with welfare conditionality and rules and gaining appropriate and secure employment.

One difficulty is that since 2011, Job Centre Plus’s (JCP) primary key performance indicator has been off-flow from benefit at the 13th, 26th, 39th and 52nd weeks of claims. Previously JCP’s performance had been measured against a range of performance indicators, including off-flows from benefit into employment.

Indeed, when asked for evidence by the Work and Pensions Committee, one minister, in her determination to defend the Conservative sanction regime, regrettably provided misleading information on the destinations of JSA, Income Support and Employment Support Allowance claimants from 2011, that pre-dated the new sanctions regime introduced in 2012, in an attempt to challenge the findings of the University of Oxford/LSHTM study on the effects of sanctions on getting JSA claimants off-flow. (Fewer than 20% of this group of people who were no longer in receipt of JSA were recorded as finding employment.) Source: Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review – Work and Pensions.

Studies have shown that being “treated” by at least one “stick” (punitive measure) significantly reduces an individual’s earnings after periods of unemployment; on the other hand, participating in a supportive programme affects earnings positively.

 Treatment and policy regime effects of Carrots and Sticks, in % of average earnings

 Effects are expressed in percent of average monthly earnings within 3.5 years after unemployment (3547 CHF = 3290 EUR = 3575 USD in sample). Treatment effects: effects of being exposed to at least one carrot (job search assistance, training) or stick (sanction, workfare programme).

Source: Arni, P, Lalive, R, and G J van den Berg (2015) “Treatment versus regime effects of Carrots and Sticks”, IZA Discussion Paper 9457.

It’s remarkably difficult to reconcile state imposed responsibilities that illiberally target only one social group, with democracy and universal human rights, which are based on core principles like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and autonomy.

We ought to question the claim that the manipulation of public decision-making to cut costs to the state is in our “best interests.” Who is nudging the nudgers, and  clearly they have their own whopping great “cognitive biases.”

Behavioural modification techniques are particularly prone to abuse because they are very effective – all tyrants and bullies are behaviourists – and such techniques represent, because of the range of subtle to threatening methods in which they exercise control and can elicit compliance, a political tool that is difficult to observe, challenge and control.

It’s also worth noting that the application of nudge is entirely experimental and nonconsenusal. For the record, when a government in a so called first world liberal democracy – that are generally expected to recognise and address public needs – decides to act upon citizens to change their behaviours to meet partisan, ideologically directed outcomes, we tend to call that authoritarianism, not nudge.

If it wasn’t for this government’s “behaviourist turn” and psychosemantic approach to the inequality and poverty that their policies tend to extend, the Department for Work and Pensions would have been renamed “The Department for Punitive State Correction and Neoliberal Behaviour Modification Experiments.” 

Nudge. It’s become another clever little euphemism. 
gcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1From the Ministry of euphemism and semantic thrifts, 1984th edition

I wrote much of this as part of a considerably longer piece, but felt that this particular point and the evidence regarding the intensification of sanctions was lost in the weight of other important issues raised in the original article: The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Related

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

Man with diabetes had to have his leg amputated because of benefit sanctions

Cases of malnutrition continue to soar in the UK

Two key studies show that punitive benefit sanctions don’t ‘incentivise’ people to work, as claimed by the government


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From homes fit for heroes to the end of secure, lifelong social housing tenancies

Social housing arose to supply uncrowded, well-built homes on secure tenancies at reasonable rents to primarily working class people. The First World War indirectly provided a new impetus for house building programmes, when the poor physical health and condition of many urban recruits to the army raised alarm. This led to a post-war campaign – Homes fit for heroes and in 1919 the Government first required councils to provide housing, helping them to do so through the provision of subsidies, under the Housing Act 1919.

Determined to “lift the shadow of the workhouse from the homes of the poor”, David Lloyd George also promised “a land fit for heroes.” But it was after the Second World War that council house building programmes and inner city slum clearance began in earnest. There was and still is a constant demand for social housing, and “waiting lists” are maintained, with preference being given to those in greatest need.

The post-war settlement refers to an era of public policy consensus that included support for collectivism, a mixed economy, access to justice, healthcare, social housing and a broader welfare state. It lasted until the monetarism and privatisation programmes of the New Right government of Thatcher.

Thatcher’s “right to buy” scheme depleted social housing stock, and there was a sharp decline in the building of new council homes, as she legislated to prevent councils reinvesting money from the sales of housing in building new council houses.

Now the Conservative government is planning to scrap lifetime security of tenure for renters in council and housing association properties, in favour of in favour of fixed-term contracts, according to housing industry reports. Up until recently, most tenants in council and housing association properties had lifetime security, compare to private renters who generally face six-month or one year tenancies.

However, the Tory bedroom tax has eroded the very idea of secure social housing tenure, because people on unemployment benefits, low wages and particularly disabled people now face either an unaffordable housing benefit penalty (and therefore a rise in the amount they have to pay in rent) if they are deemed to be “under-occupying” their home.

Now, under government plans, social landlords will no longer be able to automatically issue tenancies on a lifetime basis and would instead be forced to offer fixed-term lets for prospective tenants.

Although social landlords have been allowed to issue five-year tenancies since the Government changed the law in 2012, only around 1 in 10 new tenancies have seen the offer taken up.

In July the government said it would review the use of lifetime tenancies and limit their use. Civil servants have briefed several sector figures in the last few weeks that this strategy will go as far as preventing landlords offering lifetime tenancies to new tenants.

The Government and the social housing sector recently had a major disagreement over Tory plans to extend its Right To Buy policy to housing associations.

Landlords initially threatened legal action over the proposals when they first appeared in the Tory manifesto, but were apparently encouraged to agree a deal that involved no primary legislation.

The Government recently cut social housing rents in the budget but is planning to raise them for higher earners, under a new policy dubbed “pay to stay”.

Although Natalie Elphicke, co-author of the Treasury-commissioned House/Elphicke review of council house building, has previously urged that lifetime tenancies are restricted to groups such as those in “extreme old age” or “highly disabled” people, at the moment there is no guarrantee  that this will happen.

Michael Gelling, chair of the Tenants and Residents Organisations of England (TAROE), said the prospect was “alarming”, and that long-term tenancies gave tenants and communities stability.

Civil servants are said to be briefing industry figures on the changes, with an official announcement due within the next few months.

A spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government told Inside Housing: “More details will be available in due course.”

547145_195460507271672_1145852710_nCourtesy of Robert Livingstone

This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.

Tory policies are class contingent, express prejudice and are discriminatory

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Conservatives persistently peddle a fallacy that they don’t subscribe to an ideological belief system.
Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history and the arrival of a post-ideological world. But Fukuyama’s declarations were really just New Right ideology incognito.

I always saw Fukuyama as an ardent champion of ultra-neoliberalism, and he disguised his neo-conservatist ideology behind apparently benign virtue words and phrases (as part of a propaganda technique called Glittering Generalities), such as “Man’s universal right to freedom.” 

He meant the same sort of self-interested “freedom” as Ayn Rand – “a free mind and a free market are corollaries.” He meant the same kind of implicit Social Darwinist notions long-held by Conservatives like Herbert Spencer – where the market rather than evolution decides who is “free,” who survives; and as we know, that’s rigged in favour of a minority of rich and powerful people, by rich and powerful people. Tory ideology does not ever yield a remotely utilitarian outcome.

Fukuyama’s ideas have been absorbed culturally, and serve to naturalise the dominance of the Right, to stifle the rationale for critical debate and discredit alternatives. Not all “common sense” is established by consensus, nor does it always make sense. Tacit assumptions and prejudices often lie beneath the stock of glittering generalities and comforting soundbites that are quite commonly what passes as public and political acumen.

To quote Owen Jones:

“Since they were founded as a modern political force in 1834, the Conservatives have acted as the parliamentary wing of the wealthy elite. When I was at university, a one-time very senior Tory figure put it succinctly at an off-the-record gathering: the Conservative Party, he explained, was a “coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.”

It’s not just that Tories don’t reflect working class interests though. It’s much worse. Margaret Thatcher’s policies caused premature deaths, and her Cabinet were far less harsh towards unemployed, sick and disabled people than Cameron’s government.

A research report which looked at over 70 existing research papers concludes that as a result of unnecessary unemployment, welfare cuts and damaging housing policies, the former prime minister’s legacy includes the unnecessary and unjust premature death of many British citizens, together with a substantial and continuing burden of suffering and loss of well-being.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if you inflict stress and harm on people who are already ill, by withholding their lifeline support; by constantly reassessing them and telling them they are fit for work when they clearly are not; by invalidating their experiences, by forcing them to fight for the means of survival – without having the means of survival, it will probably exacerbate any illness and quite possibly, this will kill them.

Cameron and his government have consistently displayed an absolute lack of concern for sick and disabled people, who have borne the brunt of Tory austerity cuts. Yet it’s inconceivable that Conservatives don’t grasp the fact that their policies are at least potentially very harmful, and certainly very punitive in nature.

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

Tory ideology is founded on toxic subterranean values and principles, which are anachronistic and incompatible with a society that has evolved to value democracy, human rights and the socio-economic gains from our post-war settlement.

Conservatives have always seen inequality as a necessary and beneficial element to a market driven economy, for example; and their policies tend to assemble a steeply hierarchical society, especially given their small state fetishism, which involves removing socioeconomic support services and civilising mechanisms such as welfare, free healthcare and access to legal aid.

Beneath the familiar minarchist, class contingent Conservative policies and neoliberal schema is a tacit acceptance of socioeconomic Darwinism and a leaning towards eugenicist principles, expressed most clearly recently in the withdrawal of tax credit support for low paid families with more than two children, in order to “change behaviours” as Iain Duncan Smith put it. The reasoning behind this is the government believe they can “nudge” poor people into “breeding” less. Such a class contingent policy, based on archaic methods of operant conditioning, reflects a deep prejudice and also demonstrates a considerable degree of authoritarianism that is certainly incompatible with democracy.

(See also David Freud was made to apologise for being a true Tory in public, Paternalistic Libertarianism and Freud’s comments in context and What will the Tories suggest next. “Compassionate” eugenics?)

The Tories employ a variety of strategies to attempt to justify their ideology, narratives and policies amongst which are techniques of neutralisation. These are used to rationalise or justify acts that contravene social norms or that are illegal.  There are five basic techniques of neutralization; denial of responsibility; denial of injury; denial of victims; condemnation of the condemners and an appeal to higher loyalties.

The recognition of techniques of neutralisation by David Matza and Gresham Sykes happened during their work on Edwin Sutherland’s Differential Association in the 1950s. Matza and Sykes were working on juvenile delinquency at the time, and they theorised that the same techniques could be found throughout society and published their ideas in Delinquency and Drift, 1964.

It was Alexander Alverez who identified that these techniques were used more broadly at a socio-political level in Nazi Germany to “justify” the Holocaust. He added a sixth technique – Disengagement and Dehumanisation.

Such techniques allow people to neutralise and temporarily suspend their commitment to societal and moral values, and to switch off their own “inner protests”, providing them with the freedom to commit deviant acts. Some people don’t have such inner protests – psychopaths, for example – but they may employ techniques of neutralisation to manipulate, and switch off the conscience protests of others.

It’s clear that this is a method frequently employed by the government. The Tories systematically attempt to distort meanings, to withhold, or to deny any evidence that may expose the impact of their draconian policies on targeted social groups.

For example, when the Tories habitually and dishonestly use the word “reform” in reference to cutting public funding or support and “help” and “support” is Tory-speak that means to coerce and punish. The claim that the bedroom tax is “helping” people into workorhelping child poverty– when empirical research shows that 96% of those affected by the bedroom tax can NOT downsize due to a lack of available homes in their area – is a completely outrageous lie. People can’t move as there is a housing crisis, which is due to a lack of affordable homes and appropriately sized accommodation.

How can policies that further impoverish the poorest ever “help them to into work” or alleviate poverty? It’s glib, irrational tosh from a Government that can’t do coherent, joined up thinking, and even worse, thinks that we can’t either.

Forms of social prejudice are normalised gradually, almost inscrutably and incrementally – in stages. Allport describes the political, social and psychological processes, and how techniques of persuasion – propaganda – are used to facilitate stigmatising and dehumanisation of targeted groups to justify discrimination, until the unthinkable becomes acceptable, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries.

The prejudice happens on a symbolic level first – via language – and it starts with subtlety, such as the use of divisive and stigmatising phrases like “scroungers and strivers” in the media and political rhetoric, referring to people who need support and social security as “stock”, suggesting that disabled people are not worth a minimum wage and so on.

These comments and strategies are not “mistakes”; this is how Conservatives really think. People who are prejudiced very seldom own up to being so, nor do bullies. They employ linguistic strategies, deceitful, diversionary and irrational responses that makes challenging them very difficult.

But as history has taught us, we really must challenge them.

This was taken from a longer article, in part – Techniques of neutralisation: David Cameron’s excuses for Iain Duncan Smith

Related

Conservatism in a nutshell

Briefing on How Cuts Are Targeted – Dr Simon Duffy

Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberalism. Oh dear.

There is no such thing as a ‘one nation’ Tory: they always create two nations

Inequality has risen: Incomes increased for the richest last year, but fell for everyone else

The UK is now the most unequal country in EU, and Cameron has been very conservative with the truth

Cameron’s Gini and the hidden hierarchy of worth

Follow the Money: Tory Ideology is all about handouts to the wealthy that are funded by the poor

‘We are raising more money for the rich’ revisited: some thoughts

UK becomes the first country to face a UN inquiry into disability rights violations

Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich, Human Rights and infrahumanisation

A list of official rebukes for Tory lies

demcracyPictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

The budget: from trickle-down to falling down, whilst holding hands with Herbert Spencer.

proper Blond
“We are moving Britain from a high welfare, high tax economy, to a lower welfare, lower tax society.”

George Osborne, 8 July 2015

The pro-wealthy and anti-humanist budget indicates clearly that the Conservatives are preoccupied with highlighting and cutting the state cost of sustaining the poorest citizens rather than the costs of subsidising the rich.

I’ve pointed out before that the Conservatives operate a perverse, dual logic: that wealthy people need support and encouragement – they are offered substantial financial incentives – in order to work and contribute to the economy, whereas poor people apparently need to be punished – by the imposition of financial cuts – in order to work and contribute to the economy.

That Osborne thinks it is acceptable to cut the lifeline benefits of sick and disabled people to pay for government failures, whilst offering significant cuts to corporation tax rates; raising the tax-free personal allowance and extending inheritance tax relief demonstrates very clearly that the myth of trickle-down is still driving New Right Conservative ideology, and that policy is not based on material socio-economic conditions and public need. (And Cameron is not a one-nation Tory, despite his claims.)

Research by the Tax Justice Network in 2012 indicates that wealth of the very wealthy does not trickle down to improve the economy, but tends to be amassed and sheltered in tax havens with a detrimental effect on the tax bases of the home economy.

A more recent report – Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality : A Global Perspective by the International Monetary Fund concluded in June this year that there is no trickle-down effect –  the rich simply get richer:

“We find that increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth—that is, when the rich get richer, benefits do not trickle down.”

It’s inconceivable that the Conservatives fail to recognise such policy measures will widen inequality. Conservatives regard inequality and social hierarchy as inevitable, necessary and functional to the economy. Furthermore, Conservatives hail greed and envy as emotions to be celebrated, since these drive competition.

Since the emergence of the New Right, from Thatcher to Cameron, we have witnessed an increasing entrenchment of Neoliberal principles, coupled with an aggressive, authoritarian brand of social conservatism that has an underpinning of crude, blunt social Darwinist philosophy, as carved out two centuries ago by the likes of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer.

Spencer is best known for the expression “survival of the fittest,” which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin’s work. Spencer extended natural selection into realms of sociology, political theory and ethics, ultimately contributing to the eugenics movement. He believed that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited. Maslow would disagree. All a struggle for survival motivates is just a struggle for survival.

Spencer’s ideas of laissez-faire; a survival-of-the-fittest brand of competitive individualism; minarchism – minimal state interference in the processes of natural law – and liking for private charity, are echoed loudly in the theories of 20th century thinkers such as Friedrich HayekMilton Friedman and Ayn Rand who each popularised Spencer’s ideas, whilst Neoliberal New Right Conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron have translated these ideas into policies.

Ideology has considerable bearing on policies, and policies may be regarded as overt, objective statements of political intent. I’ve said many times over the past five years that Conservatives have forgotten that democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. Conservative policies are quite clearly no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly authoritarian, and all about telling us how to be.

Conservatives have always coldly conceived society as a hierarchy of human value, and they have, from their pinnacle of supremacist, self-appointed authority, historically cast the vulnerable and the poorest as the putative “enemies of civilization.” Social Darwinism is written in bold throughout their policies.

Furthermore, such a combination of Neoliberal and Conservative political theory, explicitly opposes democratic goals and principles. Neoliberalism was originally used by academics on the Left as a pejorative to capture the policies of imposed exploitation, privatisation, and inequality.

Neoliberalism is now characterised by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squash state regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatise public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. The term became widely recognised shorthand for rule by the rich, authoritarianism and the imposition of limits on democracy.

Banks, corporations, the financial sector, and the very wealthy are exercising power and blocking any attempt to restructure the economic system that brought about the crash.

Meanwhile, the free market is a market free for powerful interests; the profit motive has transformed the organising value of social life, and those who the Conservatives evidently regard as collateral damage of this socio-economic dogma made manifest are paying the price for the global crash, with Osborne and the Conservatives constructing narratives that problematise welfare support, generating moral panic and folk devils to demonise the poorest citizens in need of support.

Growing social inequality generates a political necessity for cultivating social prejudices.

Such Othering narratives divert public attention from the fact that the right to a fair and just legal system, a protective and effective safety net for the poorest, free healthcare – all of the social gains of our post-war settlement – are all under attack.

I have said elsewhere that Conservative ideology is incompatible with our legal commitments to human rights. The United Nations declaration of Human Rights is founded on the central tenet that each and every human life has equal worth. The Conservatives don’t agree, preferring to organise society into hierarchies of worth and privilege.

Conservative austerity measures and further impending welfare cuts are not only a deliberate attack on the poorest and most vulnerable social groups; the range of welfare cuts do not conform to a human rights standard; the “reforms” represent a serious failure on the part of the government to comply with Britain’s legal international human rights obligations.

The cuts announced by the chancellor include a further reduction to the benefits cap – not only from £26,000 to £23,000, as promised in the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto, but down even further to £20,000 outside of London.

Child tax credit, housing benefit and working tax credit will be reduced, with child tax credit only being paid for the first two children. Presumably this is, to quote Iain Duncan Smith, to “incentivise behavioural change,” placing pressure on the poorest to “breed less,” though personally, being the direct, blunt, no-nonsense sort, I prefer to call it a nudge towards “eugenics by stealth.”

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission say that any cuts to tax credits will cut the incomes of 45 per cent of working families. These cuts are particularly controversial, since the benefits cap was partly justified as a way of “making work pay”  – a Conservative narrative that echoes the punitive 1834 New Poor Law Principle of less eligibility – see: The New New Poor Law.

The Government asserts that its welfare “reform” strategy is aimed at breaking the cycle of “worklessness” and dependency on the welfare system amongst the poorest families. It’s more punitive Poor Law rhetoric.

There’s no such thing as “worklessness”, it’s simply a blame apportioning word, made up by the Tories to hide the fact that they have destroyed the employment market, just as Thatcher did, and as the Conservatives always do.

Punishing the low paid, cutting the income of families who work for low wages directly contradicts the claim that the Conservatives are “making work pay.”

Yet Osborne has framed his welfare cuts with the “The best route out of poverty is work” mantra, claiming that slashing the social security budget by £46 billion in the next five years, (including cutting those benefits to disabled people, who have been assessed as unfit for work and placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), and cutting in-work benefits, such as tax credits) is needed to make sure “work pays” and that: “we give a fair deal for those on welfare and a fair deal to the people, the taxpayers of this country who pay for it.”

The Conservatives always conveniently divide people into an ingroup of taxpayers and an outgroup of stigmatised others – non-tax payers. However, most people claiming benefits are either in work, and are not paid enough, through no fault of their own, to pay tax, or are pensioners who have worked most of their lives; or are unemployed, but have previously worked and contributed tax.

Most people claiming disability benefits have also worked and contributed tax, too.

Unemployment and in-work benefit claims are generally a measure of how well or poorly the government is handling the economy, not of how “lazy” or “incentivised” people are.

And only the Tories have the cheek to claim that raising the minimum wage (long overdue, especially given the hikes in the cost of living) is the introduction of a living wage. The basic idea is that these are the minimum pay rates needed so that workers have an acceptable standard of living. Over the last few years, wages have very quickly fallen far behind the ever-rising cost of living.

The increase is at a rate of £7.20 an hour for people over the age of 25.  Housing benefit will be withdrawn from those aged between 18 and 21, while tax credits and universal credits will be targeted at people on lower wages by reducing the level at which they are withdrawn.

The chancellor’s announcement amounted merely to an increase in the minimum wage, and the curbs on tax credits would hit low-paid workers in other ways, unfortunately.

Whilst the announcement of a phased increase in the minimum wage is welcome, it is difficult to see how this will reverse the increasing inequality that will be extended as a further consequence of this budget without a matching commitment to improving the structural framework – the quality and stability of employment available. As it is, we are now the most unequal country in EU.

If the government were sincerely interested in raising wages to make work genuinely pay, ministers would be encouraging rather than stifling trade unionism and collective bargaining. But instead we see further cuts to public sector pay in real terms year after year and the raising of the legal bar for industrial action so that strikes will be effectively outlawed in public services. And let’s not forget the grubby partisan policy of two years ago – the Let Lynton Lobby Gagging Act.

Rhys Moore, director of the Living Wage Foundation, said:

“Is this really a living wage? The living wage is calculated according to the cost of living whereas the Low Pay Commission calculates a rate according to what the market can bear. Without a change of remit for the Low Pay Commission this is effectively a higher national minimum wage and not a living wage.”

Those most affected by the extreme welfare cuts are those groups for which human rights law provides special protections. The UK government has already contravened the human rights of women, children, and disabled people.

The recent report of the UK Children’s Commissioner to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, published in July this year, says:

“Response to the global economic downturn, including the imposition of austerity measures and changes to the welfare system, has resulted in a failure to protect the most disadvantaged children and those in especially vulnerable groups from child poverty, preventing the realisation of their rights under Articles 26 and 27 [of the UN CRC] … Reductions to household income for poorer children as a result of tax, transfer and social security benefit changes have led to food and fuel poverty, and the sharply increased use of crisis food bank provision by families.”

The parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights recently reported on the UK’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and found it woefully lacking:

“Welfare cuts will ensure that the government is not in compliance with its international human rights obligations to realise a right to an adequate standard of living under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESR) and a child’s right to an adequate standard of living under Article 27 of the UN CRC. Further it will be in breach of the statutory target to eliminate child poverty contained in the Child Poverty Act 2010.”

Just in case you missed it, there has been a very recent, suspiciously timed change to the definition of child poverty, and a proposed repeal of the Child Poverty Act – something that Iain Duncan Smith has been threatening to bring about since 2013.

It’s yet another ideologically directed Tory budget, dressed-up in the rhetoric of economic necessity, detached from public needs.

And Conservative ideology is all about handouts to the wealthy that are funded by the poor.

Related:

George Osborne’s Political MasterstrokeA View from the Attic

Osborne’s class spite wrapped in spin will feed a backlashSeumas Milne

Budget 2015: what welfare changes did George Osborne announce, and what do they mean?  New Statesman: The Staggers

How Osborne’s new cuts breach the UK’s human rights obligations, Lecturer in Law at Lancaster University

Osborne’s Autumn statement reflects the Tory ambition to reduce State provision to rubble

Osborne’s razor: the Tory principle of parsimony is applied only to the poorest

The BBC expose a chasm between what the Coalition plan to do and what they want to disclose

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone

The Poverty of Responsibility and the Politics of Blame

 

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

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

This framework was pre-fabricated by the strange déjà vu musings of Charles Murray, the American sociologist that exhumed social Darwinism and gave the bones of it originally to Bush and Thatcher to re-cast. Murray’s culture of poverty theory popularised notions that poverty is caused by an individual’s personal deficits; that the poor have earned their position in society; the poor deserve to be poor because this is a reflection of their lack of qualities, poor character and level of abilities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An overview of the underhanded, not the underclass.

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

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

Eugenics in a ball gown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would be the Government.

 The Convention Rights of Children


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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone.

 


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