Tag: Paternalistic libertarianism

Despotic paternalism and punishing the poor. Can this really be England?

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Framing the game

Earlier this year, David Cameron defended his welfare “reforms”, claiming that: “Labour has infantilised benefit claimants”, and he argued it was “not big-hearted” to leave people claiming sickness allowances when “they could be incentivised to get treatment for alcohol dependence or obesity.”

I should not need to point out that despite the bizarre attempt at stigmatising sick and disabled people with such a loaded, moralising and media agenda-setting comment from our PM, the majority of people claiming sickness benefits are neither dependent on alcohol nor are they claiming because they are obese. This said, I think that alcohol dependence and obesity are illnesses that ought to be treated with compassion instead of moralising. But the general public on the whole do not hold this view. Cameron knows that. In fact Cameron has contributed to the scapegoating of social groups, outgrouping and public division significantly over the past five years

I claim sickness benefit simply because I have a life-threatening illness called lupus. There is no cure, and no-one may imply I am ill because of “life-style choices”. However, people using alcohol often have underlying mental distress, and drinking alcohol is pretty much a social norm. Poverty often means that people are forced to buy the cheapest food, which is the least healthy option. Some illnesses and disabilities cause mobility problems, and some treatments cause weight gain. So it cannot be assumed that alcohol dependence and obesity are simply about “making wrong choices” after all. 

I have to say that it IS “big-hearted” to leave me claiming benefits, Mr Cameron, because I am no longer fit for work. Indeed I was forced to take my case to tribunal after your government tried to “kindly” incentivise me to abandon my legitimate claim for sickness benefit, and the tribunal panel decided that if I were return to my profession(s) (social work and previously, youth and community work – with young people at risk of offending,) that would, though no fault of my own, place me in situations that are an unacceptable risk to my health and safety, and of course would also place others – vulnerable young people – at risk. Which is why I claimed sickness benefit in the first place – because I am too ill to work.

Libertarian paternalism isn’t “fatherly”

Mr Cameron, however, thinks he knows better and continues to insist that it is is everyone’s best interests to work. I can assure him that isn’t the case. So can many others with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

Back in 2013, Esther McVey defended the increased use of welfare conditionality and benefit sanctions in front of the work and pensions committee by infantilising claimants and playing the behaviourist paternalistic libertarian nudge card. She said: “What does a teacher do in a school? A teacher would tell you off or give you lines or whatever it is, detentions, but at the same time they are wanting your best interests at heart.”

“They are teaching you, they are educating you but at the same time they will also have the ability to sanction you.”

Since when did the state become comparable with a strict, punitive, authoritarian headmaster at a remedial school called “we know what’s best for you” in this so-called first-world liberal democracy?  That is not democracy at all: it’s despotic paternalism.

One of the cruellest myths of inequality is that some people are poor because they lack the capability to be anything else. Meritocracy is a lie. It is used to justify the obscene privileges and power at the top of our steep social hierarchy and the cruel exclusion and crushing, humiliating deprivation at the bottom. No-one seems to want to contemplate that people are poor because some people are very very rich, and if the very rich have a little less, the poor could have a little more.

Neoliberalism is a socioeconomic system founded entirely on competition. This means that people have to compete for resources and opportunities, including jobs. Inevitably such as system generates “winners” and “losers”. Poverty has got nothing to do with personal “choices”; the system itself creates inequalities.

Deserving and undeserving: the rich deserve more money, the poor deserve punishment

At least one third of those people with the most wealth have inherited it. It’s a manifestation of prejudice that poor people are seen as “less deserving”, based on “ability” and on vulgar assumptions regarding people’s personal qualities and character. In fact the media, mostly talking to itself,  in judging “the undeserving”  has given a veneer of moral authority to an ancient Conservative prejudice. It’s very evident in policies. The austerity cuts don’t apply to the fabulously lucky wealthy. Whilst the poorest citizens have seen their welfare cut and wages decrease, as the cost of living spirals upwards, millionaires were handed a tax break of £107, 000 each per year.

Surely our stratified social system of starkly divided wealth, resources, power, privilege and access is punishment enough for poor people.

As Ed Miliband pointed out: “David Cameron and George Osborne believe the only way to persuade millionaires to work harder is to give them more money.

But they also seem to believe that the only way to make you (ordinary people) work harder is to take money away.”  So Tory “incentives” are punitive, but only if you are poor. Wealth, apparently, is the gift that just keeps on giving.

Tories create “scroungers” and “skivers”

As I’ve commented elsewhere, it’s truly remarkable that whenever we have a Conservative government, we suddenly witness media coverage of an unprecedented rise in the numbers of poor people who suddenly seem to develop a considerable range of baffling personal ineptitudes and immediately dysfunctional lives.

We see a proliferation of  “skivers” and “scroungers”, an uprising of “fecklessness”, a whole sneaky “culture of entitlement”, “drug addicts”, a riot of general all-round bad sorts, and apparently, the numbers of poor people who suddenly can’t cook a nutritious meal has climbed dramatically, too. We are told that starvation is not because of a lack of money and access to food, but rather, it’s because people don’t know how to budget and cook.

That’s odd, because I always thought that poverty is a consequence of the way society is organised and how resources are allocated through government policies.

That’s a fundamental truth that we seem to be losing sight of, because of the current poverty of state responsibility and the politics of blame.

However, the current government has made the welfare system increasingly conditional on the grounds that “permissive” welfare policies have led to welfare “dependency”.  Strict behavioural requirements and punishments in the form of sanctions were an integral part of the conservative moralisation of welfare, and their  “reforms” aimed to make claiming benefits less attractive than taking a low paid, insecure job.

Sanctions simply worsen the position of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens. Creating desperation by removing people’s means of basic survival forces them into low paid, insecure work and exerts a further downward pressure on conditions of employement and wages. It commodifies the reserve army of labor, which is strictly in the interests of exploitative, profit-driven plutocrats.

Can this really be England? 

Cruel Brittania. A man with heart problems was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a disability benefits assessment and so failed to complete the assessment. A lone mother was sanctioned because she was a little late for a jobcentre  interview, as her four year old daughter needed the toilet.

A man with diabetes was sanctioned because he missed an appointment due to illness, he died penniless, starving, without electricity and alone as a consequence. His electricity card was out of credit, which meant that the fridge where he should have kept his insulin chilled was not working. Three weeks after his benefits were stopped he died from diabetic ketoacidosis – because he could not take his insulin. Here are 11 more irrational, unfair, purely punitive applications of sanctions.

How can removing the basic means of survival for the poorest people in our society possibly incentivise them, “help them into work” or be considered to be remotely “fair”?

There are targets set for imposing benefit sanctions. Jobcentre managers routinely put pressure on staff to sanction people’s benefits, according to their union. Failure to impose “enough” sanctions is said to result in staff being “subject to performance reviews” or losing pay.  “Success” as an employee at the jobcentre is certainly not about helping people to get a job but rather, it’s about tricking them out of the money they need to meet their basic needs. Such as food, fuel and shelter. Welfare is no longer a safety net: it is an institutionalisation of systematic state punishment of our poorest citizens.

Angela Neville worked as an adviser in Braintree jobcentre, Essex, for four years and she has written a play with two collaborators, her friends Angela Howard and Jackie Howard, both of whom have helped advocate for unemployed people who were threatened with benefit sanctions by jobcentre staff.

One central motivation behind the play was how “morally compromising” the job had become. In one scene an adviser tells her mother that it’s like “getting brownie points” for cruelty. When Neville herself became redundant in 2013, she was warned about being sanctioned for supposedly being five minutes late to a jobcentre interview.

There was a strong feeling among the playwrights that the tendencies in wider society and the media to stigmatise and vilify benefits claimants needed to be challenged and refuted. The play opens with a scene where “nosey neighbours” spot someone on sickness benefit in the street and assume they must be skiving instead of working.

This perspective is one shared widely amongst disabled people, groups, organisations and charities that advocate for and support disabled people, and is evidenced by the rapid rise of disability-related hate crime since 2010, reaching the highest level since records began by 2012. The UK government is currently the first to face a high-level international inquiry, initiated by the United Nations Committee because of “grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people.

That ought to be a source of shame for the both the government and the public, especially considering that this country was once considered a beacon of human rights, we are (supposedly) a first-world liberal democracy, and a very wealthy nation, yet our government behave like tyrants towards the most vulnerable citizens of the UK. And the public have endorsed this.

“This play is about getting people to bloody think about stuff. Use their brains. Sometimes I think, crikey, we are turning into a really mean, spying on our neighbour, type of society,” Angela said.

The title of the play, Can This be England? is an allusion to the disbelief that Angela Neville and many of us feel at how people on benefits are being treated. And she describes the play, in which she also acts, as a “dramatic consciousness-raising exercise”. The idea behind this production is that the play may be performed very simply, with minimum rehearsal. Scripts are carried throughout and few props are used.

It can take place in any room of a suitable size, and there is no need for stage lighting. The script is freely available to all who wish to use it for performances to raise awareness (non-commercial purposes). Click HERE to download a PDF file. If you find it useful please e-mail any feedback to Angela Neville at the Show and Tell Theatre Company.

Psychopolitics

Welfare has become increasingly redefined: it is now pre-occupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social well-being. The stigmatisation of people needing benefits is designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poor, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state.

Framed by ideological concerns, the welfare “reforms” reflect an abandonment of concern for disadvantage and the meeting of human needs as ends in themselves. We have witnessed an extremely punitive system emerge, under the Tories, at a time when jobs are becoming increasingly characterised by insecurity and poor pay. Last year, two-thirds of people who found work took jobs for less than the living wage (£7.85 an hour nationally, £9.15 in London), according to the annual report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

There are as many people in work that are now in poverty as there are out of work, partly due to a vast increase in insecure work on zero-hours contracts, or in part-time or low-paid self-employment. Poverty-level wages have been exacerbated by the number of people reliant on privately rented accommodation and unable to get social housing, the report said. Evictions of tenants by private landlords outnumber mortgage repossessions and are the most common cause of homelessness. The rapidly rising cost of living – price rises for food, energy and transport – have so many people on low pay struggling to make ends meet.

But pay for people on what were comfortable incomes previously is now outstripped by inflation, leaving many more struggling with rising prices. Public spending has decreased, having a knock-on effect on the economy.

Economic Darwinism doesn’t promote growth

Last year, I wrote about the study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), who found what most of us already knew: that income inequality actually stifles economic growth in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, whilst the redistribution of wealth via taxes and benefits encourages growth.

The report from the OECD, a leading global think tank, shows basically that what creates and reverses growth is the exact opposite of what the current right-wing government are telling us, highlighting the rational basis and fundamental truth of Ed Miliband’s comments in his speech – that the Tory austerity cuts are purely ideologically driven, and not about managing the economy at all.

There is a dimension of vindictiveness in the Tory claim that cutting people’s lifeline benefits will somehow “make work pay”, once you see past the Orwellian unlogic of the statement, and recognise the extent of waged poverty in the UK. Making work pay would rationally need to involve a rise in wages, surely, but that has not happened.

To understand this, it is important to grasp the elitist socio-economic priorities that are embedded in Conservative ideology, which I’ve outlined previously in Conservatism in a nutshell. The whole idea beneath the Orwellian doublespeak is comparable with the punitive Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 – in particular, we can see a clear parallel with the 1834 “less eligibility principle” and the Tory notion of “making work pay” which I’ve previously discussed in The New New Poor Law.

The parallels are underpinned by a shift from macro-level socio-economic explanations of poverty and state responsibility to micro-level punitive, moral psychologising, scapegoating, and the abdication of state (and public) responsibility.

Policies provide a conceptual frame of reference, which tend to shape public attitudes, they are also deeply symbolic gestures that convey subliminal messages. The Conservative war on welfare and the NHS further devalues the worth of human life, turning the needy into a disposable state commodity, a coerced, desperate reserve army of cheap labour.

It also conveys the message that to care about the survival and well-being of others is futile; it pathologises collectivism, cooperation and altruism. This is a government that operates entirely by generating fear and division, on a social, economic and cultural level, but also, increasingly intrusively, within phenomenological, psychological and psychic dimensions too.

How did the poor become such an easy enemy of the state, and how can the public believe the dominant narrative that pathologises the victim, and fail to recognise the irrational, circular argument of benefit sanctions, when the conservatives’ reasoning is that the application of sanctions demonstrates the moral ineptitude of the individual – but it merely acts to justify poverty and inequality.

The perverse logic runs as follows: welfare for the poorest citizens – those who require collective responses to poverty – can only retain public support by threatening to, and by actually making the poorest even poorer. Is this really welfare?

No, not any more.

How can welfare ever be about some politically manufactured, apocryphal and malevolent desire for retribution, based on pseudo-moralising about the poor and demoralised, and a concern for the spiteful, perverted, mean-spirited sense of satisfaction for the better off, at the expense of the material and biological well-being of those in need: the poorest and most vulnerable citizens?

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

Democracy exists partly to ensure that the powerful are accountable to the vulnerable. The Conservatives have blocked that crucial exchange, they despise the welfare state, which provides the vulnerable with protection from  exploitation by the powerful.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the wide recognition that unbridled capitalism causes casualties is why the welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest, there is inevitably going to be winners and losers. That is the nature of competitive individualism, and along with crass inequality, it’s an implicit, undeniable and fundamental part of the meritocracy script.

Poverty is created by government policies that reflect a pursuit of free market ideals;  by the imposition of neoliberal economic policies – the sort of policies that ensure taxes cuts for the wealthy, banish fiscal and other business regulations, shred the social safety net, and erode social cohesion and stability, whilst directing the media and population to chant the diversionary mantra of self-reliance and individual responsibility.

Poverty intrudes on people’s lives, it dominates attention and constantly commands that our biologically-driven priorities are met, it reduces cognitive resources, it demotivates, it overwhelms, it reduces experience of the world to one of material paramountcy which cannot be transcended, it stifles human potential.

Need is NOT greed, regardless of the malicious justification narratives in the media and spiteful political rhetoric from the champions of social Darwinism and the Randian self-serving free market. Meeting basic survival imperatives – food, warmth and shelter – is a fundamental prerequisite for life. If the means for meeting these basic survival needs is taken away, then people will die. Surely even the most cold, callous, psychopathic and dogmatic defenders of the status quo can manage to work that one out.

Punishing poor people with more poverty is savage, obscene, barbaric, brutal, and can NEVER work to “incentivise” people to not be poor, nor can it change the pathological idiom that shapes and imposes such unfortunate, unforgiving and unforgivable circumstances on those with the least in the first place.

430835_148211001996623_1337599952_n (1)With thanks to Robert Livingstone for his excellent memes

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace.

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There is an extremely anti-democratic design becoming increasingly evident in policies being formulated by the Coalition, which is aimed at protecting the interests of the very wealthy; at stifling debate, challenges and opposition; permitting political and corporate corruption whilst obscuring it; restricting access to justice for victims of government and corporate corruption and oppression; removing accountability and transparency. There is a detachment of policies from wider public needs and interests. Instead, policies are all about instructing us how to behave.

It’s only a matter of time before the new behavioural economics and so-called science of nudging decision-making is applied to influencing the population’s voting behaviour as well.

Free-will, determinism and bounded rationality in decision-making: implications for democracy

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

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

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

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

However, the government have employed a group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” who claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our consent.

But 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. However, Coalition policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

The ideas of libertarian paternalism were popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty whilst still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests.

But who nudges the nudgers? Who decides what is in our “best interests”?

That would be the government, of course. Thaler, who studied the psychology of decision-making, drawing on the exploitation of “cognitive bias” and techniques of persuasion that have until now been used only by the advertising industry, claims that we are fundamentally irrational. But according to Professor Thaler, we would “all invest in the stock market if we were rational.”  That’s a rather unique and remarkably narrow definition.

I wonder if he bothered asking everyone about that. I imagine that if he gets his way, university entrance criteria will change forever. Mind you, so will ideas about human diversity. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on social conformity, directed from the Conservative Cabinet office.

Nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s become a technocratic fix – pseudo-psychology that doubles up as “common sense”, aimed at maintaining the socioeconomic order.

Another phrase the authors introduced was “choice architecture”, a concept implying that the State can be the architect that arranges personal choice in way that nudges consumers in the right direction. It seems that even policies have been commodified. Poor people get bargain basement “incentives” to work harder by having their income reduced, while millionaires get the deluxe model incentives, entailing massive tax cuts and exemptions, all handed out from public funds. 

The “right” direction is towards a small State, with nothing but behavioural “incentives” to justify forcing citizens who have needs to be “responsible” and “self-sufficient,” achieving this presumably by paying taxes and then pulling themselves up strictly by their own invisible bootstraps. It’s the government’s new nothing for something culture, specifically for those who fall on hard times.

The pseudo-psychological framework

Behavioural Economics is actually founded in part on crude operant conditioning: it marks the return of a psychopolitical theory that arose in the mid-20th century, which was linked to behaviourism Advocates of this perspective generalised that all human behaviour may be explained and described by a very simple reductive process: that of Stimulus–Response. There is no need, according to behaviourists, to inquire into human thoughts, feelings, beliefs or values, because we simply respond to external stimuli, and change our automatic responses accordingly, like automatons or rats in a laboratory.

In the Coalition agreement, there is mention of “finding intelligent ways to encourage people to make better choices for themselves. David Halpern, an apparently adaptable, very pro-business behavioural economist, also plays a role in David Cameron’s Big Society project. In 2010, the entire Cabinet were impressed with Nudge, and it quickly became required reading for ministers and civil servants. 

The Guardian casually reported that Nick Clegg said he believed the new Behavioural Insights Team could “change the way citizens think.” What is particularly shocking is that the comment elicited no shock whatsoever. (The very idea of a group of right-wing authoritarians that recognise human worth only in terms of money, covertly influencing my behaviour, and that of everyone else, quite frankly appalls me.)

Formally instituted by Cameron in September 2010, the Behavioural Insights Team, which is a part of the Cabinet Office, is made up of people such as David Halpern, who co-authored the Cabinet Office report: Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy, which comes complete with a cover illustration of the human brain, with an accompanying psychobabble of decontextualised words such as “incentives”, “habit’, “priming” and “ego.” It’s a lot of inane managementspeak. However, the ideas behind the corporate jargon are providing a framework of experimental and often controversial policy-making on an unsuspecting public.

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

Tory ideology is extended under the misleading  label of libertarian paternalism, which is all about shaping our behaviour, by offering “choice architecture”, that reduces public choices to “Choice.” At the heart of every Coalition welfare policy is a behaviour modification attempt, promoted by the influential Nudge Unit and founded on the discredited, pseudoscientific behaviourism, which is basically just about making people do what you want them to do, using a system of punishments and reinforcements. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

At the same time, as well as shaping behaviour, the psychopolitical messages being disseminated are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not remotely rational: they reflect and are shaping an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for welfare “reform”, austerity, the “efficient”small State (minarchism) and also legitimizes them. (I’ve written at length elsewhere about the fact that austerity isn’t an economic necessity, but rather, it’s a Tory ideological preference.)

The Conservatives are traditional, they are creatures of habit, rather than being responsive and rational. Coalition narratives, amplified via the media, have framed our reality, stifled alternatives, and justified Tory policies that extend psychological coercion, including through workfare; benefit sanctions; in stigmatizing the behaviour and experiences of poor citizens, and they endorse the loss of autonomy for citizens who were disempowered to begin with.

Nudge theory has made Tory ideology seem credible, and the Behavioural Insights Team have condoned, justified and supported punitive, authoritarian policies, with bogus claims about “objectivity” and by using inane, meaningless acronyms to spell out a pseudoscientific neuroliberalism and to peddle made-up nonsense founded on the whopping, extensive cognitive biases of paternalist libertarians. Most of the nudge unit is comprised of behavioural economists, who are basically peddling the kind of techniques of persuasion that were usually reserved for the dubious end of the advertising industry. This is not “social psychology”, nor is it in any way related to any legitimate social science discipline. However, the creep of behaviourism into nudge based “interventions” is cause for considerable concern.

This government’s policies have contravened the human rights of women, children and disabled people, to date. Nudge is hardly in our “best interests,” then. 

The Coalition aren’t engaging with us democratically, they are simply nudging us into compliance with how they think the UK ought to be. We need to ask, in a democracy, where do behavioural economists, policymakers and Tories gain the moral authority to manipulate people’s behaviour? Governments ought to be about supporting people in realising their aspirations, not about changing those aspirations so that they correspond to the worldview of the “choice architects.”

Nudge application: irrationality and ideological justification

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

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

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

Secondly, the very casual use of the phrase behavioural change is an indication of just how influential  the Behavioural Insights Team (Cameron’s pet project, the Nudge Unit) has become in Tory policy-making and justification narratives. The new “behavioural theories” are all-pervasive.

On the Institute for Government website, the section called MINDSPACE Behavioural Economics  mentions “behaviour change theory” and “influencing behaviour through public policy.” A lot. But surely, in democracies, public policies are supposed to reflect and serve identified public needs, rather than being about the public meeting specific policy outcomes and government needs.

And how many of us have consented to allow this government to experiment on us via policy with what is, after all, simply a set of pet theories? And that’s what nudge theory applications via policy amounts to.

Again, the Nudge Unit simply reflects a pseudoscientific platform for extension of the government’s ideological reach, reflecting and legitimizing Tory dogmas, such as minarchism (small state, reduced or no public services and support). It’s aim is to persuade the public, using an old and discredited theory – behaviourism – that austerity, cuts to welfare and a massive reduction and mass privatisation of our remaining public services are the only option we have.

From the Mindspace site: “New insights from science and behaviour change could lead to significantly improved outcomes, and at a lower cost, than the way many conventional policy tools are used.”

The welfare “reforms” were hailed by the Conservatives as a system of help and incentives – to “nudge” people into changing their behaviour so that they try harder to find work – but they are in fact eroding people’s motivation. In other words, the reforms have deincentivised and hindered people looking for employment, achieving the very opposite to the intent claimed by the  Conservative-led Coalition. 

But given that the “reforms” are extremely punitive – cutting people’s lifeline benefits at a time when the cost of living is rocketing, unemployment and underemployment is high, jobs are insecure, wages are at an all time low, and at the time of the reforms bill being drafted and passed through parliament (it was very opposed by many, including the House of Lords – but it was forced through into law only because Cameron invoked “financial privilege”), we were in a deep recession – it’s inconceivable that the Coalition didn’t realise that the “reforms” would push people into utter desperation.

How can anyone claim that forcing people to struggle to meet basic survival needs “incentivises” or helps people into finding almost non-existent work that actually pays sufficiently to meet the cost of living? It’s impossible for people to be motivated to do anything but survive when they can’t meet their most fundamental needs. (See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Sanctions are used – involving the complete removal of lifeline benefits for periods of up to 3 years – when jobseekers “don’t try hard enough” to find work. However, the existence of sanction targets in job centres  indicates clearly that sanctions are being used by the government simply to remove people’s benefits and reduce the numbers of people registered as unemployed. 

Gathered evidence shows that the sanctions are rarely connected to the actual behaviours of people who are looking for work. People are being punished for simply being poor, vulnerable and claiming benefits. The recent Just about Surviving report, for example, describes a culture of fear, especially among those with serious disability or illness, who were unable to work and so felt powerless to escape or offset the financial losses causes by welfare cuts. 

Disabled people are also sanctioned, despite being deemed unfit for work by Doctors and by Atos. The report says: The sheer scale and speed of the cuts to State support left interviewees with “almost no flexibility to live with any comfort”. It meant some of those interviewed were: “Barely surviving.”

Most people who were interviewed told researchers they both wanted to work and saw benefit in working. The report calls on ministers to provide more help in getting people into work, and criticises the “lack of compassion” in the implementation of the reforms.

It is probable that the Department for Work and Pensions will dismiss the findings of the report as “anecdotal,” drawing attention to the small size and geographical reach of the research and suggest that it is not a representative analysis. But the researchers quite rightly point out: “In the absence of an official cumulative impact assessment, this report makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of the impacts of the Coalition’s welfare reforms”.

 

I believe there are very good reasons to employ qualitative methodology, not least, to counter the Tory preference for the quantitative, where human experience is excluded, lives are reduced in worth by referring to accounts of them as merely “anecdotal”, social groups are marginalised, dehumanised and re-defined as Others,  and the Tory statistical justificationisms – a dressed-up, dogmatic pseudopositivismend up earning them yet another toothless rebuke from Andrew Dilnot.

I’ve said elsewhere that the Tories certainly have a problem confronting human needs as well as observing and upholding concomitant human rights. It’s almost as if they assume there is an ideal, unidimensional, default-type citizen that has no needs at all. Conservatives seem to think that a person who is responsible is part of an ideally invisible, non-demanding, compliant public, who simply get on quietly with working hard for Tory corporate sponsors to make rich people profits, whilst accepting insultingly low pay and poor working conditions. If you can’t or won’t do that, then you will be nudged into compliance.

And back into the 19th century. This is not only oppression at a political level – for example, material inequality has grown because of Conservative-led policies that punish the poor and reward the wealthy – people are also being repressed existentially: emotionally, psychologically and cognitively, to ensure conformity to the prevailing elite’s idea of (Social Darwinist) norms and values.

That’s why the bankers and financial institutions that caused the global recession through behaving “irrationally” aren’t included in Cameron’s nudge social conditioning experiment. It’s largely aimed at the poor, curiously enough. Though apparently, the Conservatives believe that the wealthy are incentivised differently from the rest of us: they need rewards of even more money, tax breaks and large bonuses, rather than financial punishments to ensure they are “responsible citizens.”

The Conservatives and a largely complicit media, convey the message that poor people suffer from some sort of character flaw – a poverty of aspiration, a deviance from the decenthard-working norm. That’s untrue, of course: poor people simply suffer from material poverty which steals motivation and aspiration from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival.

However, the Conservatives have decided that in addition to bearing the burden of your poverty, you now have to work at improving your behaviour.

Mind the Mindspace:

A summary of the main influences outlined in the MINDSPACE acronym framework

MINDSPACE.jpg

All of these basic ideas are being utilised to prop up Conservative ideology, to shape Conservative policies and to justify them; to deploy justification narratives through the mass media, in schools and throughout all of our social institutions.

For example, incentives being linked to the mental “shortcut” of strongly avoiding losses (a “cognitive bias” called loss aversion) shows us precisely where the Tories imported their justification narrative for the welfare cuts and benefit sanctions from. What the government calls incentivising people, by using systematic punishments, translates from Orwellian Doublespeak to “state coercion” in plain language.

“We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves” – norms, committments, affect, ego“behavioural insights”  are manipulations of a neoliberal, paternalist ideological grammar, contributing to Tory rhetoric, lexical semantics and media justification narratives that send both subliminal and less subtle, overt messages about how poor and disabled people ought to behave. And it establishs a “default setting” regarding how the public ought to behave towards poor and disabled people.

The night-watchman who looks the other way from those who need looking out for

This is political micro-management and control, and has nothing to do with alleviating poverty. Nor can this ever be defined as being our “best interests.” There’s an identifiable psychocratic approach embedded in Conservative policies aimed at the poorest. Whilst on the one hand, the Tories ascribe deleterious intrinsic motives to rational behaviours that simply express unmet needs, such as claiming benefit when out of work, and pathologise these by deploying a narrative with subtextual personality disorder labels, such as scrounger, skiver and the resurrected Nazi catch-all category for deemed miscreants: workshy,”  the Tories are not at all interested in your motivations, attitudes, thoughts, hopes and dreams. They are interested only in how your expectations and behaviour fits in with their intent to reduce the State to that of  night-watchman  proportions – one that is only watching out for the privileged and propertied class.

Poor people are not culpable, regarding their predicament. No-one would choose to be poor. They don’t formulate the policies that create rising inequality and poverty: the Tories do. Conservatives are very good at laying out the price of everything, they even go to the trouble of sending out a grossly inaccurate statement to try to persuade the public that their taxes are paying for a projected, shameful, disproportionately costly and wasteful welfare system supporting free riders – a “bad investment” for a mythological, discrete class of taxpayers that needs to be dismantled by a thousand more Tory cuts, but they never once reflect the value and worth of anyone who has been or is going to be destroyed in the wake of their dystopic, Social Darwinist, ideologically driven meddling and propaganda peddling.

And they also fail to mention that although Conservatives are claiming they don’t agree with state interventions, they do an awful lot of those anyway, just to ensure that virtually all of our public wealth is privatised, whilst the debt, risks and pain of this is carried by those people who are the very least able to bear the burden, and actually, the least expensive to society.

The Tory market place harbours no democracy, or sentiment for rights to temper our responsibilities, unless you are rich: everyone else has to content themselves with only responsibilities, the weight of which are inversely proportional to your wealth, of course.

The link between nudge and totalitarianism

As a psychology student, I remember wondering why few psychologists had commented on the political ramifications of B.F. Skinner and behaviourism. After all, he was clearly a totalitarian thinker, and behaviour modification techniques are the delight of authoritarians.

To recap, behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

Skinner and the behaviourists casually removed the person from people. There’s no-one in the “driving seat.” We are being remotely controlled.

Behaviourism was discredited and labelled “pseudoscience” many decades ago, (very memorably by Noam Chomsky, amongst others). Most psychologists and cognitive scientists don’t accept that myriad, complex human behaviours are determined by and reducible to nothing more than an empty stimulus/response relationship; our deeds and words merely a soulless, heartless and mindless cause and effect circuit.

How can behaviourists claim objectivity when they are active participants within the (intersubjective) social environment, sharing the same context that allegedly shapes everyone else’s behaviour? And how does behaviourism itself miraculously transcend the deterministic confines of stimulus-response? If all behaviours are determined, then so are psychological theories.

The Behavioural Insights Team are charlatans that are propping up the policies of an authoritarian government. Hannah Arendt wrote extensively about totalitarian regimes, in particular Nazism and Stalinism. She says that Hitler and Stalin sought to eliminate all restraints upon the power of the State and furthermore, they sought to dominate every aspect of everyone’s life. This domination tends to happen in stages – incrementally.

In Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity1971, he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behaviour modification, which he claimed could create a better-organised and happier society, where no-one is autonomous, because we have no autonomy. (See also Walden Two1948: Skinner’s “Utopian” antidemocratic novel).

There is, of course, no doubt that behaviour can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence, actual violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. Freedom and dignity are values that are intrinsic to human rights. And all tyrants and bullies are behaviourists.

The insidiousness of “libertarian paternalism” is not only due to a slippery slope from the implicit “non-coercive nudge” to explicitly coercive limits on individual autonomy and liberty.

There is also a problem with the very term, as an example of Orwellian language-use, “libertarian paternalism” renders difficult the ability to conceive of a principled distinction between policy that respects individual autonomy and policy that violates it. But there is a distinction, and the ability to defend our liberty depends on ensuring it is maintained.

Democracy involves governments that shape themselves in response to what people need and want, it’s not about people who reshape their lifestyles in response to what the government wants. Democracy is meant to involve the formulation of a government that reflects and meets public needs.

Under the nudge tyranny, that is turned totally on its head: instead the government is devising more and more ways to put pressure on us to change. We elect governments to represent us, not to manipulate us covertly.

Nudge is actually about bypassing rationality, reason, political accountability and transparency – democratic process, critical debate. The government is substituting those with manipulation, coercion, and an all-pervasive social operant conditioning experiment. The irony is that there is no scope offered with nudging for engaging with rational processes and stimulating critical thinking, in fact nudge bypasses rational and deliberative processes and therefore presents no opportunities whatsoever for people to learn and develop new cognitive skills.

 

The Nudge Unit has been part-privatised, protected from public scrutiny. It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act. It can sue for libel.

Another application of “behavioural insights”: How to demonise and demoralise jobseekers in one meaningless test. Psychometric tests always tell us more about the designers than about the people who fill them in. And at best, they can only ever indicate that a person is capable of completing a psychometric test. The whole approach of “working” on jobseekers’ “self-esteem” is complete nonsense. It assumes that unemployment is an individual failing that may be fixed at a personal level, rather than a problem of arithmetic where there are fewer jobs than the number of people who want them.

Related

The just world fallacy 

DEFINING FEATURES OF FASCISM AND AUTHORITARIANISM