Tag: Semantic shifts

Through the looking glass darkly: the Conservatives are colonising progressive rhetoric

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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Semantic thrifts: being Conservative with the truth

Much communication in the media is geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus. This excludes pluralism and ultimately serves to reduce democratic choices. Such an approach is ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions and maintaining a profoundly unbalanced, pathological status quo.

Presenting an alternative narrative is difficult because the Conservatives have not only framed all of the issues to be given public priority – they set and stage-manage the media agenda – they have also dominated the narrative; they constructed and manage the political lexicon and now treat words associated with the Left, such as welfare, like semantic landmines, generating explosions of right-wing scorn, derision and ridicule – words like cooperation, inclusion, mutual aid, reciprocity, equality, nationalisation, redistribution and the like are simply dismissed as mere anachronisms that need to be stricken from public conversation and exiled from our collective consciousness, whilst all the time enforcing a bland language of an anti-democratic political doxa.

However, the Conservatives have also raided from the progressive lexicon, and I’m far from alone in noticing the Conservative colonisation of traditionally progressive rhetoric in recent years, using in abundance terms such as “fair”, “support”, “protection”, “freedom” , “opportunity”, “reform” and even “social justice” to pepper their speeches.

Last October, even Dan Hodges noticed the linguistic imports. He said: “Prison reform. Ethnic minority rights. Gay rights. A national housing “crusade”. An “all out assault on poverty”. An attack on “the lowest social mobility in the developed world”. These were the main themes of the Conservative Party leader’s – I’ll repeat that, the Conservative Party leader’s – address to his annual conference. I expected David Cameron to attempt to park his tank on Labour’s lawn.

… It wasn’t just what David Cameron said, but how his party reacted to it. The section of his speech where he said “I want us, the Conservatives, to end discrimination and finish the fight for real equality in Britain today,” was met with a standing ovation.”

The Conservatives have plundered from left wing discourse purely to broaden their superficial appeal and to neutralise opposition to controversial and contentious policy. The legislative context in which such language is being used is completely at odds with how it is being described by purposefully stolen terms and phrases. It’s disorientating and cognitive dissonance inducing to see the language of social justice, democracy, inclusion and equality being used to justify and describe policies which extend social injustice, authoritarianism, exclusion and inequality.

There is a growing chasm between Conservative discourse, and policy intents and outcomes. There isn’t a bridge between rhetoric and reality. Last week I wrote about the chancellor’s budget, and said:

Only a Conservative minister would claim that taking money from sick and disabled people is somehow “fair,” or about “helping”, “supporting” or insultingly, “incentivising” sick and disabled people who have already been deemed unfit for work by their doctors and the state via the work capability assessment to work.

The Tories all too frequently employ such semantic shifts and euphemism – linguistic strategies – as an integral part of a wider range of techniques of neutralisation that are used, for example, to provide linguistic relief from conscience and to suspend moral constraint – to silence both “inner protest” and public objections – to the political violation of social and moral norms; to justify acts that cause harm to others whilst also denying there is any subsequent harm being inflicted; to deny the target’s and casualties’ accounts and experiences of political acts of harm, and to neutralise remorse felt by themselves or other witnesses.

Media discourse has often preempted the Conservative austerity cuts, resulting in the identification, stereotyping and scapegoating of the groups in advance of the targeted, discriminatory policies. Media discourse is being used as a vehicle for the government to push their ideological agenda forward without meeting legitimate criticism, public scrutiny and without due regard for essential democratic processes and safeguards.

The five neutralisation techniques identified by Gresham Sykes and David Matza are: denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of victims, appeal to higher loyalties, and condemnation of condemners.

The really critical part of Sykes and Matza’s argument is that rationalisations precede immoral, cruel or controversial acts and are a key factor in making deviant behaviour possible (amongst delinquents, the mafia or Conservative ministers). As such, the rationalisations betray intent.

The cuts of £120 a month to the disability benefit Employment Support Allowance  are also claimed to be “fair.” and “supportive.” Though I have yet to hear a coherent and rational  explanation of how this can possibly be the case. Ministers claimed that people subjected to the ESA Work Related Activity Group cuts could claim PIP if they required support with extra living costs, but now we are told that PIP is to be cut, too.

Osborne ludicrously claimed that the Conservative government was “increasing spending on disabled people”, he said: “Controlling welfare bills is part of what you need to do if you’re a secure country confronting the problems in the world.”

But as Andrew Marr amongst others pointed out, the cuts to ESA and PIP show an intended substantial reduction on government spending to essential support for disabled people.

PIP was introduced by the Conservatives to “target those most in need” and to save money. Despite David Cameron promising before the general election that there would be no further cuts to disability support, ministers nonetheless have claimed that the proposed cuts to PIP are once again to “target those most in need”, which would leave many of those disabled people originally defined as being most in need on an ever-shrinking island.

Linguistic stealth and slick trickery

The Conservatives have co-opted a progressive language to disguise extremely regressive policies, and to blur and manipulate traditional ideological boundaries. It’s purely strategy rather than ideological direction. They have quite cunningly [re-]framed a partisan narrative, dressing it up as common sense. For example, policies are framed using the phrases like “social justice”, “fighting poverty”, Conservatives present themselves as the “party for working people” and claim concern for ensuring people “fulfil their potential”. These are phrases ordinarily associated with discourses of the Left.

This framing makes it much more difficult for the Left to focus public debate on the issues central to social democracy. Equality of opportunity, linked with open social mobility, merit and freedom, is another central value and objective for progressives. However, equality appears to be increasingly couched in negative terms, as opposed to merit, and often associated with social injustice, inefficiency and unfairness by the Conservatives.

Under the Equality Act, provision was made by the Labour government to ensure that legislations didn’t discriminate against protected social groups, which included disabled people. However, the need for public bodies in England to undertake or publish an equality impact assessment of government policies, practices and decisions was quietly removed by David Cameron in April 2011. The legal requirement in the Equality Act that ensured public bodies attempt to reduce inequalities caused by socio-economic factors was also scrapped by Theresa May in November 2010, who said that she favoured a greater focus on “fairness” rather than “equality”, claiming that many people felt “alienated” by the equality agenda.

The Conservatives have paid a lot of money to advisors to develop ways of expressing their world-view and the use of misleading discourse, almost invariably contradicted by policy, practice and outcomes, is intentional.

The Tories use euphemism a lot to neutralise criticism and to present a facade of judicious, equitable rationale for draconian policies founded on ideology and traditional Tory prejudices. The redefinition of the financial crisis as a state – specifically, “irresponsible government” – rather than a market failure, and a narrative of “enhanced efficiency and responsibility in public administration” translates into policy practice as cuts to the public sector, drastic cuts to the post-war settlement social safety net budgets and a steady erosion of workers´ rights, “excellence and free choice in education or health service provision” means widespread privatisation – and a deterioration of public services, leaving  citizen’s with considerably less choice and increasingly unmet needs.

The Conservative’s progressive rhetoric conceals a partisan determination to impose neoliberal policies that shrink the size of the state, while defending traditional Conservative vested interests among the financial sector and the wealthy.

Yet Cameron and his chancellor have successfully placed the blame for the deficit on Labour’s trumped up charge of “profligacy” in government, despite the fact that we were out of recession caused by the global financial crisis, by the last quarter of 2009. Despite the fact that the Conservatives created a recession in 2011, and we lost our Fitch and Moody triple A credit ratings, despite Osborne’s promises and assurances that we wouldn’t. The Conservatives have a historically verified tendency to create recessions, too. The Thatcher administration did, and so did John Major’s. How did the public forget these events? Black Wednesday is estimated to have cost us £3.4 billion. The constant repetition of the profligacy lie, ad nauseam, supplanted the public’s accurate perception of the underlying events.

Tory ideology is about handouts to the wealthy funded by the poor

“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.” Ed Miliband, 2012.

Taxation of the wealthy is framed as an unfair burden – an affliction or punishment, propped up by constant implicit references to debunked notions such as trickle-down wealth and job creation. Policies extending social injustice are being reframed as social justice.

Framing takes a long time to develop, and this particular frame was developed by the New Right on both sides of the Atlantic. It does leave progressives with a fight to articulate the moral basis for progressive taxation, obstructed by the outrageous Conservative myth that wealthy people have somehow amassed their wealth all by themselves and therefore deserve it and more. The truth is that it is ordinary UK taxpayers who support the infrastructure of wealth accumulation. It is only fair that those who benefit most from this should also pay their equal share.

Without the veneer of democratic engagement and respectability that the Conservatives raided from discourses of the Left, Conservative policies would appear as they really are: driven by a narrow ideology, based on traditional Tory prejudices and completely indefensible.

 

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This image contains 24 word clouds, representing the 24 categories into which a sample of roughly 130,000 statements from UK House of Commons parliamentarians, all made between 2006 and the present day, were partitioned by the clustering algorithm. Each cloud contains ten words; the larger the word, the more representative it is of the cluster. The colouring is also meaningful: red words have meanings more closely aligned with remarks by Labour politicians; blue words, with those of Conservatives; and yellow words, with the sentiments of Liberal Democrats.See source: Clustering debates from UK politicians.

 

Recommended

How the Tories Use the Language of Social Justice to Sell Us Social Injustice

How to Respond to Conservatives –  George Lakoff

 

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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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Tory rhetoric, the politics of psychobabble: it’s batshit telementalism and mystification

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Oh come all ye faithful

The Conservative conference was a masterpiece of stapled together soundbites and meaningless glittering generalities. And intentional mystification. Cameron claims that he is going to address “social problems”, for example, but wouldn’t you think that he would have done so over the past five years, rather than busying himself creating them? Under Cameron’s government we have become the most unequal country in the European Union, even the US, home of the founding fathers of neoliberalism, is less divided by wealth and income than the UK.

I’m also wondering how tripling university tuition fees and reintroducing banding in classrooms can possibly indicate a party genuinely interested in extending equal opportunities.

“Champions of social justice and opportunities”? Must have been a typo in the transcript: it’s not champions but chancers.

Cameron also claims that the Conservatives are the “party for workers”, and of course lamblasted Labour. Again. Yet it was the Labour party that introduced tax credits to ensure low paid workers had a decent standard of living, and this government are not only withdrawing that support, we are also witnessing wages drop lower than all of the other G20 countries, since 2010, the International Labour Organisation reliably informs us.

This fall not only led to a tight squeeze on living standards, it also led to a shortfall in treasury income in the form of tax revenues. But all of this is pretty standard form for Conservative governments.

It’s interesting to note that the only standing ovation Cameron had for his speech from delegates was not related to policy proposals or even rhetoric. It was a response to the bitter, spiteful and typical Tory bullying approach to any opposition: in this case, an outburst of vindictive, unqualified personal comments, misquotes, misinformation and downright lies about Jeremy Corbyn.

It was more of the usual Conservative claptrap about Labour leaders “hating Britain”. Cameron used an out-of-context quote to paint Jeremy Corbyn as a “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating” leader. Cameron had failed to give any context to Mr Corbyn’s comments that he intentionally  misquoted, failing, for example, to mention the fact that Corbyn had said the lack of a trial for Bin Laden was the “tragedy”, not his death itself. The deliberate misquote, however, was met with a deft response from the Left, hoisting Cameron by his own petard.

Here is Cameron’s speech in full technicolour and spectacular ontological insecurity:

Cameron’s malicious comments reminded me again of the Tories’ history of dirty tricks, like the Zinoviev letter, the campaign against Harold Wilson, and made me think of the almost prophetic and increasingly less fictional A Very British Coup.

Even the BBC have called the Conservatives out on their very nasty anti-democratic propaganda campaign against Corbyn.

From the deluge of incoherent commentaries to the mechanisms of telling lies: Conservatives don’t walk the talk

The fact that there is now such an extensive gap between Conservative rhetoric, the claims being made and reality makes the task of critical analysis difficult and somewhat tiring, and I’m not the only writer to comment on this.

The Conservatives use language – semantic shifts – and construct incongruent, dissonance-inducing narratives to misdirect us, and to mask the aims and consequences of their policies.  For example, the words “fair”, “support” and the phrase “making work pay” have shifted to become simple socio-linguistic codifications for very regressive punitive measures such as cuts to social security support (comparable with the principle of less eligibility embedded in the Poor Law of 1834) and benefit sanctions.

The most striking thing about the Conservative conference, for me, isn’t just the gap between rhetoric and reality, it is also the gap between the bland vocabulary used and the references, meanings and implications of what was actually being said.

The semantics are also stratified. People who are unaffected by austerity policies will probably take the bland vocabulary at face value. Cameron said:

“The British people are decent, sensible, reasonable, and they just want a government that supports the vulnerable.”

However, the “vulnerable” know a very different reality to the one substituted and described on their behalf. People who are adversely affected by Conservative policy will regard the bland vocabulary as bewildering, deceitful, frightening – especially because of its incongruence with reality – and most likely, as very threatening. Such rhetoric is designed to hide intention, but it is also designed to deliberately invalidate people’s own experiences of Tory policies and ultimately, the consequences of an imposed Tory ideology.

Not that there can be any mistaking the threats aimed at sick and disabled people from Duncan Smith in his Conference speech. He said:

“We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.”

Of course the Work and Pensions secretary employed a traditionally Tory simplistic, divisive rhetoric that conveniently sections the population into “deserving” tax payers and “undeserving” non-tax paying citizens, to justify his balefully misanthropic attitude towards the latter group, as usual. However, the majority of sick and disabled people have worked and have contributed tax. 

As Dr Simon Duffy, from the Centre for Welfare Reform, points out, the poor not only pay taxes they also pay the highest taxes.  For example, the poorest 10% of households pay 47% of their income in tax. This is a higher percentage than any other group. We tend to forget that people in poverty pay taxes because we forget how many different ways we are taxed:

  • VAT
  • Duties
  • Income tax
  • National Insurance
  • Council tax
  • Licences
  • Social care charges, and many others taxes.

Mr Duncan Smith said that many sick and disabled people “wanted to work” and that the Government should give them “support” to find jobs and make sure the welfare system encouraged them to get jobs.

We’ve seen the future and it’s feudal

Ah, he means “making work pay,” which is the Tory super-retro approach to policy-making, based on the 1834 Poor Law principle of less eligibility again.  The reality is that sick and disabled people are being coerced by the state into taking any very poorly paid work, regardless of whether or not they can work, and to translate the rhetoric further, Duncan Smith is telling us that the government will ensure the conditions of claiming social security are so dismal and brutal that no-one can survive it.

And Cameron’s promise during his address to the Conservative party conference that “an all-out assault on poverty” would be at the centre of his second term is contradicted by a sturdy research report from the Resolution Foundation that reveals planned welfare cuts will lead to an increase of 200,000 working households living in poverty by 2020.

Duncan Smith also criticised what he claimed was Labour’s “something for nothing culture” which was of course a very supportive and fair, reasonably redistributive system. He also dismissed and scorned the protests against his policies, which his party’s conference has been subject to. But demonstration and protest is a mechanism of democracy for letting a government know that their policies are having adverse consequences.

Many of the disabled protesters at the conference are being hounded, hurt and persecuted by this government and actually, we are fighting for our lives. But clearly this is not a government that listens, nor is it one that likes democratic dialogue and accountability.

In his teeth-grindingly vindictive and blindly arrogant speech, Duncan Smith also criticised the old Employment Support Allowance benefit for signing people off work when they were judged by doctors as too sick to work. He claimed that Labour treated disabled people as “passive victims.” I’m wondering what part of professional judgements that a person is too sick to work this lunatic and small-state fetishist finds so difficult to grasp. Duncan Smith is a confabulating zealot who drives a dogmatic steam-roller over people and their experiences until they take some Tory neo-feudalist deferential, flat-earth shape that he thinks they should be.

Let’s not forget that this government have actually cut support for disabled people who want to work. The Access To Work funding has been severely cut, this is a fund that helps people and employers to cover the extra living costs arising due to disabilities that might present barriers to work. The Independent Living fund was also cruelly scrapped by this Government, which also has a huge impact on those trying their best to lead independent and dignified lives.

By “support to get jobs”, what Duncan Smith actually means is no support at all. He means more workfare – free labor for Tory donors – and more sanctions – the removal of people’s lifeline social security. He also means that good ole’ totalitarian dictum of “behaviour change,” a phrase that the Tories are bandying about a lot, these days.  Ask not what the government can do for you.

And what about frail and elderly people needing support?

The public care sector has been cut by a third this past 5 years, yet people are still aging and living longer, so demand for the services has risen. We know that private residential care homes notoriously put profit over care standards, as yet there’s not been an equivalent local authority scandal, but cuts and gross underfunding mean care workers are stretched beyond limit, and there aren’t enough funds to run an adequate home care service. It’s mostly the very frail and elderly who need this service. And it’s those vulnerable citizens that are being increasingly left without adequate care, and certainly not care of a sufficient standard to maintain their dignity.

These are citizens that have paid into a social security system that was established for “cradle to the grave” support if it was needed. This government has so wickedly betrayed them. That’s hardly making a lifetime of work and contribution “pay”.

The knock on effect is that many people without adequate care end up stranded in hospital, taking up beds and resources, through no fault of their own, and as we know, the health service is also desperately struggling to provide adequate service because of Tory cuts.

The aim of Conservatives is not to meet public needs, but to nudge the public into complicity with Conservative ideology

Many writers, a number of MPs and Peers have variously likened Conservative rhetoric to George Orwell’s Doublespeak in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four. Others claim that the idea of a language and thought-manipulating totalitarian regime in the UK is absurd. But that said, I never thought I would witness an era of human rights abuses of disabled people, women and children by the government of a so-called first-world liberal democracy. The same government have also stated it’s their intention to repeal our Human Rights Act and exit the European Convention on Human Rights. I can understand the inclination towards disbelief.

There’s another group of people that know something is wrong,  precisely what that is becomes elusive when they try to think about it and the detail slips through their fingers, as it were, when they try to articulate it. But that’s what Tory rhetoric purposefully aims to generate in those who oppose Conservatism: confusion, cognitive dissonance and disbelief

Which brings me to the government’s woeful brand of “liberatarian paternalism” – manifested in the form of an authoritarian Nudge Unit. The fact that it exists at all and that it is openly engaged in changing people’s decision-making without their consent is an indication of an extremely anti-democratic, psychocratic approach to government. The Tories are conducting politics and policy-making using insidious techniques of persuasion and psycholinguistic hocuspocusery for psychic and material profiteering, ordinarily reserved for the very dubious, telemental, manipulative end of the diabolistic advertising industry.

Once a PR man, always a PR man, that’s David Cameron.

By telemental, I mean it’s based on a kind of communication model that is transmissional, linear, mechanistic – where people are treated as conforming, passive “receivers” of information constructs, rather than an interactive, participatory, dialogical and importantly, a democratic one where people are regarded as autonomous critical interpreters and negotiators. We’re being talked at, not with. The Tories are using telementation to communicate their ideological sales pitch, without any democratic engagement with the majority of citizens, and without any acknowledgement of their needs. (Telementation is a concept originally introduced by linguist Roy Harris. )

The co-author of Nudge theory, Cass Sunstein, actually suggested that government monitors political activism online, too. He has some links with GCHQ’s covert online operations which employ social science to inform their psychological operations to influence online interactions and outcomes. Sunstein proposed sending covert agents into “chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups” which spread what he views as “false and damaging conspiracy theories” about the government. “Conspiracy” theories like this one, eh?

The nudging of psychobabble and neuroliberalism

Tory policy is all about social engineering using justification narratives founded on an insensate, draconian ideological and semantic unobtainium equivalent. It’s clear that this government lacks the experience and understanding necessary for the proper use of psychological terms.  The content of their smug and vindictive justification narratives and stapled-together, alienating and psychopathic rhetoric deviates markedly from even basic common sense and good judgement.

The Tories reduce long debated, complex ideas to surprisingly spiteful platitudes, and hand us back dogmas gift wrapped in aggrandized certitude.

Malice in blunderland.

There is an accessible government website outlining some of the Nudge Unit’s neurobabble and subliminal messaging “successes”, albeit the more mundane ones, like getting men to pee on the “right” part of a urinal. Or getting people to pay their taxes on time, or to donate organs.

The Nudge Unit’s behaviourism and psychological quackery, however, is all-pervasive. It has seeped into policy, political rhetoric, the media, education, the workplace, health services and is now embedded in our very vocabulary and social narrative. Every time you hear the phrase “behavioural change” you know it’s a government department acting upon citizens everywhere, using  basic, crude operant conditioning without their consent, instead of actually doing what public services should and meeting public needs. Instead, citizens are now expected to meet the government’s needs.

Where do you think the government got their pre-constructed ideological defence lexicon of psychobabble – they bandy about insidiously bland words like “incentivise” in the context of coercive state actions – such as the ideas for welfare increased conditionality and brutal operant conditioning based sanctions?

Did anyone actually ask for state “therapy” delivered by gaslighting, anti-socially disordered tyrants?

I sent an FOI asking the Department of Work and Pensions for the figures for sanctions since 2010 to the present, and I asked for the reasons they were applied. I also asked how sanctions can possibly “incentivise” or “help” people into work, and what research and academic/psychological/theoretical framework the claim is premised on, after I pointed out Maslow’s motivation theory based on a hierarchy of needs – accepted conventional wisdom is that you can’t fulfil higher level psycho-social needs without first fulfiling the fundamental biological ones.

If people are reduced to struggling to meet basic survival needs, then they can’t be “incentivised” to do anything else. And even very stupid people know that if you remove people’s means to eat, keep warm and shelter, they will probably die. It’s worth remembering that originally, benefits were calculated to meet only these basic survival needs. That’s why welfare is called a social “safety net”.

maslow-hierarchy-of-needsMaslow’s hierarchy of needs

There can be no justification whatsoever for removing that crucial safety net, and certainly not as a political punishment for people falling on hard times – that may happen to anyone through no fault of their own.

No matter what vocabulary is used to dress this up and attempt to justify the removal of people’s lifeline benefits, such treatment of citizens by an allegedly democratic, first-world government is unacceptable, despicable, cruel: it’s an act of violence that cannot fail to cause harm and distress, it traps people into absolute poverty and it is particularly reprehensible because it jeopardises people’s lives.

And what kind of government does that?

The nature of deception and psychological trauma

The Government are most certainly lying to project a version of reality that isn’t real.  Critical analysis of Tory rhetoric is a very taxing, tiring challenge of endlessly trying to make sense of disturbing relations and incoherent misfits between syntax and semantics, discourse and reality events. There’s a lot of alienating, fake humanism in there.

When politicians lie, there is a break down in democracy, because citizens can no longer play an authentic role in their own life, or participate in good faith in their community, state, and nation. Deception is cruel, confusing, distressing and anxiety-provoking: keeping people purposefully blind to what the real political agendas are and why things are happening in their name which do not have their agreement and assent.

Lying, saying one thing and doing another, creating a charade to project one false reality when something else is going on, is very damaging: it leaves people experiencing such deception deeply disorientated, doubting their own memory, perception and sanity.

To cover their tracks and gloss over the gaping holes in their logic, the Tories employ mystification techniques, the prime function of which is to maintain the status quo. Marx used the concept of mystification to mean a plausible misrepresentation of what is going on (process) or what is being done (praxis) in the service of the interests of one socioeconomic class (the exploiters) over or against another class (the exploited). By representing forms of exploitation as forms of benevolence, the exploiters confuse and disarm the exploited.

The order of concepts is not the order of things

On a psychological level, mystification is used in abusive relationships to negate the experience of abuse, to deceive and to avoid authentic criticism and conflict. Mystification often includes gaslighting, which is a process involving the projection and introjection of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim, and has a debilitating effect on the victim’s ability to think rationally and often, to function independently of the gaslighter. It can take many forms. In all instances, however, it involves the intentional, cold and cunning distortion of accounts of reality by a predator that systematically undermines the victim’s grasp of what is happening, distorting perceptions of events, editing and re-writing for the gaslighter’s own political, financial, or psychological ends.

And of course, gaslighting exploits the fact that human beings have a tendency to deny and repress those things that are too overwhelming and painful to bear. Much psychotherapy is based on creating a safe space for allowing experience of the dreadful – which as an event has already happened – to “happen.”

A memorable example of psychological mystification is presented in a case study cited by R.D. Laing. (In Did You used to be R.D.Laing, 1989). A woman finds her husband with a naked woman in the living room. She asks: “What is that naked woman doing in my house on my sofa!?” To which her gaslighting husband, without missing a beat, replied:  “That isn’t a woman, that’s a waterfall.” 

The poor woman felt her grasp of reality weaken, because she had trusted her husband and had always tended to believe him. She lost her self to a period of psychosis because of the deep trauma this event caused her. Her husband was an authoritarian figure. We tend to accept that authority figures tell the truth, with little questioning. But it’s not a safe assumption at all.

She was made to doubt her own perception and account of events, despite the utter absurdity of the alternative account of reality presented to her. To have one’s perception and experience of reality invalidated is very painful, threatening to the self and potentially extremely damaging.

We have a government that thinks nothing of using this type of distortion and deception to cover up the worst consequences of its policies.

This is a government of authoritarians and psychocrats who have an apparent cognitive dissonance: they decided that rich people are motivated only by fincancial gains, whilst poor people are motivated only by financial losses and punishments. However, when you replace the word “incentive” with the value-laden term “deserve”, and then slot it into an ideological framework with an underpinning social Darwinist philosophy, it becomes more coherent and actually, profoundly unpleasant. The Tories think that “social justice” is about taking money from those who need the most support, and handing it to those who don’t

This is a government that’s all about manufacturing conformity and obedience. The gospel, according to the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, is that we are the architects of our own misfortunes, but when it comes to good fortunes, well of course, the government claims responsibility for those. Incoherent, puerile proselytizing nonsense.

The truth of the human condition, according to the Tories, is that poor people scrounge, rich people are saintly and the former group needs humiliating and state “therapy” – degrading “paternalistic” corrective treatment, (mostly comprised of a barrage of anti-humanist ideology and the constant threat of, and often actual withdrawal of your lifeline income), whereas the latter group need all the praise, support and state handouts they can get.

This is a government that use a counterfeit and dark triad (particularly Machiavellian) inspired language to create an impression of plausibility and truth, and to hide their true aims. They are demogogues of a radical and reactionary anti-social agenda. Intolerance, fear and hatred, machismo and bullying tendencies are masqueraded as moral rectitude.

This is a government that uses superficial, incongruent, meaningless psychobabble to justify the most savage and cruelly coercive policies that we have seen in the UK during our lifetime. Those social groups unaffected by the policies think that the government are acting in our “best interests”, but people are suffering and dying as a consequence of these policies.

People’s life problems such as unemployment and poverty arise from bad decision-making from the government and are not clinical maladies, the use of or implying of pseudo-clinical terms in political victim-blame narratives and gaslighting is not meaningful or appropriate.

Political psychobabble is designed intentionally to limit the freedom of public comprehension, it neutralises our own vocabulary, and invalidates our experiences. The nasty party are engaged in psychic profiteering – a government of quacks spouting pretentious gibberish to justify taking money from the poorest citizens and handing it out to the very wealthy.

It’s irrational, incoherent psychobabble from over-controlling, obedience-obsessed irrationalists whose sole aim is to ensure the population conform to government needs, and meet the demands of neoliberalism, rather than, heaven forbid, wanting a democratic government and an economic system that actually meet public needs.

Or if you prefer plainspeak: Tory rhetoric is rather like a long-empty belfry – full of batshit.

Oh, that way madness lies.

Cam weakness
Picture courtesy of Robert Livingstone