Tag: stigma

Not one day more: Tory councillor suspended for sneering racism and vindictive Tory anti-welfarism

Rosemary Carroll

Councillor Rosemary Carroll

A Conservative councillor has been suspended for her sneering racism and despicable prejudice regarding welfare claimants. Some media outlets have described the comments as a “joke”. It wasn’t.

Rosemary Carroll, a Conservative councillor, shared a post about a man asking for benefits for his pet dog, making offensive rascist comparisons.

She was Mayor of Pendle until last month but was suspended from her party after the post appeared on her account this week.

The local Conservative branch posted a statement about the “inappropriate post” on Facebook after the allegations came to light.

Councillor Joe Cooney, leader of the Conservatives on Pendle Council, said Councillor Rosemary Carroll was suspended pending an investigation.

The comments, which have now been deleted, compared an Asian person claiming social security support to a dog. 

Speaking before the suspension was confirmed, Carroll said she had meant to delete the post but ended up publishing it “by mistake”.

Philip Mousdale, Pendle Council’s corporate director, said he received two formal complaints about the post at the time.

He said the complaints against the councillor, who represents Earby Ward, allege she had breached the council’s code of conduct.

“As monitoring officer for the council I’m looking into the complaints,” Mousdale added.

Cooney said: “We will not tolerate racism of any form. Rosemary Carroll has been suspended from the Conservative Group on Pendle Borough Council and the Conservative Party with immediate effect, pending a full investigation in due course.”

Carroll claims she planned to post an apology for her bigotry.

However, this is not an isolated incident, and the Conservatives continue to show utter contempt for both people of colour as well as people who need welfare support, as this extremely offensive post from one of their Councillors shows.

Conservative councillor 'posted joke comparing Asian people to dogs'
Damage limitation

                        The obscene and extremely offensive original post

This isn’t a one-off, it’s how many Tories actually think

When it comes to displays of prejudice, the Conservatives have a long history. It’s no coincidence that the far right flourishes under every Tory government, from Thatcher in particular, to present day.

Racism isn’t the only traditional Conservative prejudice. Who could forget David Freud’s offensive comments, made when he was a Conservative Welfare Reform Minister, that some disabled people are  not worth the full national minimum wage”  and that some “could only be paid £2 an hour.” Cameron claimed the disgraceful comments made by Lord Freud at the Tory conference do not represent the views of government. 

However, his government’s punitive austerity measures and the welfare “reforms” tell us a very different story. The comments came to light after they were disclosed by Ed Miliband during Prime Minister’s Questions.

Freud’s comments are simply a reflection of a wider implicit and fundamental Social Darwinism underpinning Tory ideology, and even Tim Montgomerie, who founded the Conservative­Home site has conceded that: “Conservative rhetoric often borders on social Darwinism […] and has lost a sense of social justice.” 

David Freud was made to apologise for simply being a Tory in public.

Social Darwinism, with its brutal and uncivilising indifference to human suffering, has been resurrected from the nineteenth century and it fits so well with the current political spirit of neoliberalism. As social bonds are replaced by narcissistic, unadulterated materialism, public concerns are now understood and experienced as utterly private miseries, except when offered up to us on the Jerry Springer Show or Benefit Street as spectacle.

Conservative policies are entirely ideologically-driven. We have a government that uses words like workshy to describe vulnerable social groups. This is a government that is intentionally scapegoating poor, unemployed, disabled people, asylum seekers and migrants.

One Tory councillor, Alan Mellins – called for the “extermination of gypsies”, more than one Tory MP has called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people. Philip Davies has also said that the national minimum wage is “more a hindrance than a help” for disabled people, and proposed that we are paid less. A Conservative deputy mayor – retired GP, Owen Lister –  said, unforgivably, that the “best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.”

Let’s not forget Boris Johnson’s grossly racist comments describing black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” in the Telegraph in 2002. He only apologised when he first ran for London mayor in 2008.

And Cabinet minister Oliver Letwin also escaped disciplinary action after it was revealed that he had said black people have “bad moral attitudes” when he was a top adviser to Thatcher. He actually said that any government schemes to help black people would be wasted in “the disco and drugs trade.” 

In August, 201, Dover Conservative councillor Bob Frost describes rioters as “jungle bunnies.” He lost his teaching job but the Tories suspended him for just two months. In 2014, he referred to the prospective Middle Eastern buyers of Dover port as “sons of camel drivers.” No action was taken.

In January 2013, Enfield Conservative councillor Chris Joannides compared Muslim children to black bin bags in a Facebook post. In April 2014, Barnet councillor Tom Davey complained online about “benefit claiming scum”, and said that it might be easier to find a job if he were “a black female wheelchair-bound amputee who is sexually attracted to other women.” He was not disciplined by the party.  

These are NOT “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Tories believe these beliefs and comments are acceptable, just as long as they aren’t made in public. We need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms”, the cuts aimed at disabled peoples support and services – which were unthinkable before 2010 – and to research the consequences of austerity for the most vulnerable citizens, those with the “least broad shoulders” and the least to lose – to understand that these comments reflect accurately how Conservatives actually think.

The fact that dog whistle politics – political messaging employing coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different or more specific resonance for a targeted and prejudiced subgroup, maintaining plausible deniability by avoiding overtly racist language – has been normalised by the likes of Lynton Crosby, and is intrinsic to Conservative  campaigns, indicates clearly that the Conservatives want to appeal to racist groups.

Crosby created a campaign for the Conservatives with the slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”: a series of posters, billboards, TV commercials and direct mail pieces with messages like “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration” and “how would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter?” which focused on “hot-button issues” like dirty and over-stretched hospitals, “landgrabs” by “gypsies” and restraints on police behaviour.  

In the 2016 London Mayoral Election, Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith ran a dog whistle campaign against Labour’s Sadiq Khan, playing on Khan’s Muslim faith by suggesting he would target Hindus and Sikhs with a “jewellery tax” and attempting to link him to extremists.

That this is considered acceptable behaviour by a government – who serve as public role models – is an indication of just how far our society has regressed in terms of human rights and our democratic ideals of equality and diversity. This is a government that has purposefully seeded and permitted social prejudice in order to gain support and power. 

This is a government that is creating and manipulating public prejudice to justify massive socio-economic inequalities and their own policies that are creating a steeply hierarchical society based on social Darwinist survival of the wealthiest neoliberal “small state” ideology.

The dispossession of the majority to ensure the relentless acculation of wealth for an elitist and greedy minority.  

The Tory creation of socioeconomic scapegoats, involving vicious stigmatisation of vulnerable and protected social groups, particularly endorsed by the mainstream media, is simply a means of de-empathising the population, manipulating public perceptions and securing public acceptance of the increasingly punitive and repressive basis of the Tories’ crass neoliberal welfare “reforms”, and the steady stripping away of essential state support and provision, for the public, which the public have paid for via taxes and national insurance.

At the same time that austerity was imposed on the poorest citizens, the millionaires were awarded a £107,000 each per year tax cut. It seems only some of us have to “live within our means”. 

The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism and behavioural economic theories), all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision. Discriminatory political practices and rhetoric send out a message to the public, and that permits wider prejudice, hate speech, hate crime and discrimination.

The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of  constructing deviant welfare stereotypes and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public:

“If working people ever get to discover where their tax money really ends up, at a time when they find it tough enough to feed their own families, let alone those of workshy scroungers, then that’ll be the end of the line for our welfare state gravy train.” James Delingpole 2014.

Delingpole was a close friend of Cameron’s at university. Apparently, they would get stoned and listen to Supertramp regularly, whilst hatching their profoundly antisocial and anti-democratic obscenities. Their plot sickens.

Poverty cannot be explained away by reference to simple individualist narratives of the workshy scrounger as the likes of Delingpole claim, no matter how much he would like to apply such simplistic, blunt, stigmatising, dehumanizing labels that originated from the Nazis (see arbeitssheu.)

Poverty arises because of the consequence of political decisions, and structural conditions.

Climbing Allport’s ladder

Gordon Allport studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. In his research of how the Holocaust happened, he describes sociopolitical processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes tenable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards politically defined others, that advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees. 

The process always begins with political scapegoating of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as the Other: a common “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, extermination of the group being targeted. 

Economic recession, uncertainty and political systems on the authoritarian -> totalitarian spectrum contribute to shaping the social conditions that seem to trigger Allport’s escalating scale of prejudice.

In the UK, the media is certainly being used by the right-wing as an outlet for blatant political propaganda, and much of it is manifested as a pathological persuasion to hate others. The Conservatives clearly have strong authoritarian tendencies, as I have been pointing out since 2012, when the welfare “reform” act was pushed through parliament with unholy haste, with the excuse of “economic privilege”, despite the widespread opposition to that bill. The authoritarianism of the Tories is most evident in their anti-democratic approach to policy, human rights, equality, social inclusion and processes of government accountability.

Vulnerable groups are those which our established principles of social justice demand we intervene to help, support and protect. However, the Conservative’s rhetoric is aimed at a deliberate identification of citizens as having inferior behaviour.

The poorest  citizens are presented as a problem group because of their individual faulty characteristics, and this is intentionally diverting attention from wider socioeconomic and political causes of vulnerability. Individual subjects experiencing hardships have been placed beyond state protection and are now the objects of policies that embody punitive and crude behaviourism, and pathologising, coercive elements of social control.

After seven years of Conservative governments, our most vulnerable citizens are no longer regarded as human subjects, they have become objects of the state, which is acting upon them, not for or on behalf of them. 

This has turned our democracy completely on its head.

It quite often isn’t until someone Carroll, Freud or Mellins push our boundaries of decency a little too far. Then we suddenly see it, and wonder how such prejudiced and discriminatory comments could be deemed acceptable and how anyone could possibly think they would get away with such blatantly offensive rhetoric without being challenged. It’s because they have got away with less blatantly offensive comments previously: it’s just that they pushed more gently and so it wasn’t obvious, we simply didn’t see.

During a debate in the House of Lords, Freud described the changing number of disabled people likely to receive the employment and support allowance as a “bulge of, effectively, stock”After an outraged response, this was actually transcribed by Hansard as “stopped”, rendering the sentence meaningless.  He is not the only person in the Department for Work and Pensions who uses this term. The website describes disabled people entering the government’s work programme for between three and six months as 3/6Mth stock.

This infrahumanised stock are a source of profit for the companies running the programme. The Department’s delivery plan recommends using  credit reference agency data to cleanse the stock of fraud and error”.

The linguistic downgrading of human life requires dehumanising metaphors: a dehumanising socio-political system using a dehumanising language, and it is becoming familiar and pervasive: it has seeped almost unnoticed into our lives.

As Allport’s scale of prejudice indicates, hate speech and incitement to genocide start from often subliminal expressions of prejudice and subtle dehumanisation, which escalate. Germany didn’t wake up one morning to find Hitler had arranged the murder of millions of people. It happened, as many knew it would, and was happening whilst they knew about it. And many opposed it, too. It still happened.

The dignity and equal worth of every human being is the axiom of international human rights. International law condemns statements which deny the equality of all human beings.

As a so-called civilised and wealthy society, so should we. It’s time we said goodbye to austerity, the right-wing politics of inequality and prejudice.

This is a government that thinks that PEOPLE are a disposable commodity – “collateral damage” of a failing neoliberal mode of organisation. People dying as a result of austerity cuts are passed off by Tory ministers as “anecdotal evidence.” The government claim there is no “provable causality” between their policies and premature deaths. Yet there is a well-established correlation, that requires further investigation, which the government has so far refused to undertake. But it is very clear that Conservative policies are driven by traditional Tory prejudices.

It really is time to say not one day more.

And never, ever again.

Image result for allports ladder of prejudice

Update

A Tory Brexiteer has described the UK leaving the EU without a deal as a “real n****r in the woodpile” at a meeting of eurosceptics in Central London.

Anne Marie Morris, MP for Newton Abbot since 2010, made the astonishing remark while discussing what financial services deal the UK could strike with Brussels after 2019.

The phrase she used is from the nineteenth Century, and refers to slavery. It is thought the phrase arose in reference to instances of the concealment of fugitive slaves in their flight north under piles of firewood.

The origin of the phrase is from the practice of transporting pulpwood on special railroad cars. In the era of slavery, the pulpwood cars were built with an outer frame with the wood being stacked inside in rows and stacks. Given the nature of the cars, it was possible to smuggle persons in the pile itself, giving rise to the phrase.  

In July 2008, the leader of the British Conservative Party, David Cameron, was urged to sack Conservative peer Lord Dixon-Smith, who said in the House of Lords that concerns about government housing legislation were “the n***er in the woodpile”. Dixon-Smith said the phrase had “slipped out without my thinking”, and that “It was common parlance when I was younger”

Despite using the racist term, none of Morris’s fellow panelists, including Tory MPs Bill Cash and John Redwood, reacted at the time.

After saying just 7% of financial services in the UK would be affected by Brexit, Morris said: “Now I’m sure there will be many people who’ll challenge that, but my response and my request is look at the detail, it isn’t all doom and gloom.

“Now we get to the real n****r in the woodpile which is in two years what happens if there is no deal?”

Morris said: “The comment was totally unintentional. I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused.”  

She has been suspended.  

However, such supremicist, hierarchical thinking and language is entrenched in Conservative rhetoric and practices. This is far from an isolated case of an offensive, racist, prejudiced speech act.

 

 


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What I don’t understand about Conservatism

Image result for conservatism uk

I don’t understand Conservatism or the lack of rationale of its supporters.

As an ideology, it lacks coherence and scope. Conservative policies lack an empirical evidence base.

It doesn’t take very much critical scrutiny to understand that it is purely ideology (as opposed to socioeconomic needs) and traditional class-based prejudices and moralising that drive Tory legislation. Conservative rhetoric seems so random and inconsistent to me. We have an extremely regressive and authoritarian government with something of a feudal vision, that clearly has no problem with disregarding and contravening the human rights of some social groups – especially those groups that are deemed “protected”.

The Conservatives have no problem dismantling the progressive social gains of our post-war settlement (for example, legal aid, social housing, the NHS, the welfare state). The same government wants to bring back the ancient and barbaric ritual of fox hunting, yet it has the cheek to claim its opposition will “take us back to the seventies”.  Mind you, they say that about every Labour leader at every general election.

I was recently chatting with a political social psychologist about my lack of understanding about the Conservative’s profoundly antisocial and antidemocatic worldview. He told me that Conservatives have a very different moral worldview to those on the left, based on authority and discipline, (which is why they always tend towards a punitive authoritarianism in power) that lacks the notion of human dignity. As such, they are likely to experience a lower “disgust” response to human rights abuses.

There is a continuing debate on whether cognitive or emotional mechanisms underlie moral judgments, or whether emotional mechanisms actually shape cognitive ones. Recent studies have illustrated that emotions – particularly disgust – play a prominent role in moral reasoning. It seems to have a particularly strong influence on our judgments in the social andpolitical domains, too. We can feel disgust for immoral actions, for people, or for entire social groups. 

Presenting some social groups as “disgusting” by the creation of stereotypes and the use of stigmatising rhetoric can also be used intentionally to create social divisions by manipulating social prejudices. Others find the political act of dehumanising others disgusting. 

Social stigma messages bear certain recognisable attributes: they provide cues to categorize and distinguish people, and to demarcated groups as a discrete social entity; they imply a responsibility and blame for receiving placement within this demarcated outgroup and an associated “moral peril”, and this distinguished group is then associated to physical, social and economic peril.

Stigma messages evoke a variety of emotions – fear, anger and disgust – that motivate people to adopt relevant or related social attitudes. Stigma attitudes encourage the sharing of stigma messages with others in a network, which may, subsequently, bond ingroup members whilst further alienating the outgroup.

Image result for disability stigmatising messages in the newspapers

Media portrayals of disabled people that preempted public sympathy for those most affected by the punitive Conservative welfare “reforms” – a Conservative euphemism for disproportionately targeted and devastating austerity cuts. Political rhetoric framed the cuts in terms of “incentives” to “encourage” sick and disabled people into work, implying that they are simply “workshy” rather than unable to work, and making out that they are an economic burden on “the tax payer”.

2014-02-17-BurdenoftheCuts-thumb

My own observations are that Conservatives are rather more moralising than moral. They create folk devils, and use the media to generate public disgust and disdain to fuel moral panics and maintain  social outgroups. You can always predict where the next round of austerity cuts will be targeted by the group that is being demonised in the media, and by the othering rhetoric of ministers – usually it’s a variation on the “scrounger/striver” dichotomy and the “burden on the tax payer” narrative. 

The Conservatives also reconstruct the world hierarchically – Conservative policies quite clearly generate and sustain inequality. I don’t understand why anyone would think that some lives are more important and worth more than others, but Conservatives really do.

Conservatives also have a strong need to keep a tight control of the world around them, they seem to fear change and make sense of social reality via taxonomies, categories and counts. As a defense mechanism, it’s really rather anally retentive.

They think that inequality is the “natural order” of things, based on notions of “deserving” and “undeserving”, so inevitably, they think some people’s lives are worth less than others. They don’t seperate wealth, power and status from rights, unfortunately, and miss the whole point of universal human rights frameworks. For the New Right neoliberals, the only rights that matter are property rights and the liberty to compete for resources and wealth. However, human rights are all about holding the wealthy and powerful to account, to prevent abuses of power.

Surely any government that has such a blatant disregard for the rights of some citizens is a serious cause for concern in a wealthy, so-called first world democracy. Democracy by its very nature is, after all, supposed to be inclusive.

You can discern a lot about people by looking at their attitude and behaviour towards animals, because that indicates how they will regard and treat people with little power. Killing animals for “sport” is something I find loathsome and abhorrent. I don’t understand why anyone would or could be so cruel.

The Dark Triad

Inflicting acts of intentional animal torture and cruelty is quite often associated with antisocial personality disorders. In particular, it is associated with a triad of specific characteristics of personality – Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy (the malevolent Dark Triad). A 2013 study carried out by Dr. Phillip Kavanagh and his colleagues examined the relationship between the three Dark Triad personality traits and attitudes towards animal abuse and self-reported acts of animal cruelty. The study found that the psychopathy trait especially was related to intentionally hurting or torturing animals, and was also a composite measure of all three Dark Triad traits.

So how does animal cruelty link with how a person regards and treats other people?

I’m not going to argue here that all Conservatives are psychopaths. However, I am going to explore values, behaviours, traits, attitudes and worldviews using a framework of psychology.

So, what makes a Conservative a Conservative?

Some researchers have linked personality traits with political ideology. For example, Robert (Bob) Altemeyer’s right wing authoritarianism (RWA) construct emphasises submission, obedience, conventionalism, and aggression as a result of social learning (Altemeyer, 1998), conformist personality, and danger-themed worldviews. 

An additional authoritarian variable, social dominance orientation (SDO; Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994), found endorsement of intergroup hierarchies and inequalities resulting from a “tough-minded personality” that prefers inequality among social groups, lacks empathy and holds competitive, individualist worldviews (Duckitt, 2005). 

Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) is negatively correlated with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism. As I said, Consevatives tend to be quite antisocial.

Some people much prefer wide social inequalities. SDO is conceptualised as a measure of individual differences in levels of group-based discrimination; that is, it is a measure of a person’s preference for status-ranking and hierarchy within society and domination over what are perceived as lower-status outgroups. And animals, whose lives are seen as unimportant and disposable.

See Mass contempt for cruel, unscientific badger culling ignored and:


So Conservatives tend to show a predisposition toward anti-egalitarianism within and between social groups. High scores of SDO predict stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice. SDO also correlates with forms of right wing authoritarianism.

These characteristics and differences may be framed in a theory of basic human values.  

Emotional disgust plays an important role in our ethical outlook more generally. We find certain types of unethical actions disgusting, and this operates to keep us from engaging in them and makes us express disapproval of them. But according to research, psychopaths have extremely high thresholds for disgust. Of course, psychopaths fail to recognise even the most universal social obligations and norms.

Much of the way people make sense of the world is through emotion. It informs our “gut” decisions, it forges and sustains our connections to people and places, our sense of belonging and purpose. It is almost impossible to imagine life without feelings – until you come across a psychopath.

However, psychopaths often cover up their emotional coldness and moral deficit with an above average level of ever-ready charisma and engaging charm. That’s how psychopaths gain power over others and manipulate them ruthlessly, as a means to their own ends. They have a glib and superficial, but usually plausible and cunning charm that obscures their lack of empathy, principles and remorse.  

Psychopaths don’t tend to be socially awkward. They are often of better-than-average intelligence. They do not express true remorse, genuine emotion or a desire to change. Though they are often experts at telling people what they want to hear. 

Social dominance orientation is a personality trait which predicts social and political attitudes, and is a widely used social psychological scale. SDO as a measurable individual difference arose from social dominance theory. Individuals who score high in SDO desire to maintain and, in many cases, increase the differences between social statuses of different groups, as well as individual group members. Typically, they are controlling, manipulative, competitive, aggressive, dominating, tough, and unempathic, uncaring power-seekers.

People scoring high in SDO also prefer strongly hierarchical group orientations. Often, people who score high in SDO have strongly held beliefs in forms of social Darwinism. It has also been found that men are generally higher than women in SDO measures.

Studies have found that SDO has a strong positive relationship with authoritarian, sexist and racist beliefs. With right wing authoritarianism (RWA), it contributes to different forms of prejudice; SDO correlates to higher prejudice against socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, RWA correlates to higher prejudice against threatening groups, while both are associated with increases in prejudice for “dissident” groups. 

SDO is linked with callous affect (which is to be found on the psychopathy sub-scale) – the “polar opposite” of empathy. Research also strongly suggests that those scoring high on SDO proactively avoid scenarios that could prompt them to be more empathetic or tender-minded. This avoidance also decreases concern for the welfare of others.  

SDO also has a direct effect on generalized prejudice, as lack of empathy makes one unable to put oneself in another other person’s shoes, which is also a predictor of prejudice and antidemocratic views. Extensive research has provided evidence that a high social dominance orientation is strongly correlated with Conservative political views, and opposition to policy programmes and policies that aim to promote equality. SDO is also positively and significantly correlated with Dark Triad variables. 

Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy correlated with immigrant threat perceptions and increased prejudice. 

I have a theory that while psychopaths simply lack the capacity for empathy, and can’t learn it, empaths can become desensitised, and unlearn concern for the welfare of others – they can be switched off. Research also suggests this is true. Democratic societies tend to be lower in SDO measures. That’s genuinely democratic societies, which requires the inclusion of all social groups, not just politically defined ingroups. 

Political interventions can shift compassionate left wing people temporarily to the political right. And notably, none of them seem to have anything substantive to do with policy, or with the widely understood political and ideological differences between the left and right. 

Here is a list of five things that can switch off left wing liberals, courtesy of Chris Mooney, an American science and political journalist: 

Distraction. Several studies have shown that “cognitive load” – in other words, requiring people to do something that consumes most or all of their attention, like listening to a piece of music and noting how many tones come before each change in pitch – produces a conservative political shift.

In one study, for instance, left wing and conservative subjects were asked whether government health care should be extended to a hypothetical group of AIDS victims who were responsible for their own fates (they’d contracted the disease while knowing the risks, and having unprotected sex anyway).  

Those on the left of the political spectrum, who were not under load – not distracted – wanted to help such people, despite the fact that they were personally responsible for their plight. But  the left wingers under load were much more like conservatives, appearing to reason using the just world fallacy: that this group of AIDS victims had “gotten what they deserved”. (Cognitive load did not appear to change the view of conservatives in the study.) 

Drunkenness. Alcohol intoxication is not unlike cognitive load, in that it cuts down the capacity for in-depth, nuanced thinking, and privileges economical, quick responses. Sure enough, in a recent study of 85 bar patrons, blood alcohol content was related to increased political conservatism for left wingers and conservatives alike. 

The drinkers still knew whether they were left leaning or conservative, of course. But when asked how much they agreed with a variety of statements of political principles – like, “Production and trade should be free of government interference”—higher blood alcohol content was associated with giving more conservative answers.

Time Pressure. In another study reported in the same paper, participants were asked how much they endorsed a variety of politically tinged words, like “authority” and “civil rights.” In one study condition, they had to see the term and respond to it in about 1.5 seconds; in the other condition, they had 4 seconds to do so. This made a political difference: subjects under time pressure were more likely to endorse conservative terms. 

Cleanliness/Purity. In another fascinating study, subjects who were asked political questions near a hand sanitizer, or asked to use a hand wipe before responding, also showed a rightward shift. In this case, political conservatism was being tied not to distraction, but rather, to disgust sensitivity – an emotional response to preserve bodily purity. 

Fear. After 9/11, public support for President George W. Bush also immediately swelled. In fact, a study showed that Bush’s approval ratings increased whenever terror alert levels were issued by the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of “liberal hawks” who wanted to attack Iraq was much remarked upon. Why is that? 

The answer seems to involve the amygdala, a region of the emotional brain that conditions our life-preserving responses to danger. Its activity seems to have political implications: When we’re deeply afraid, tough and decisive leaders are more appealing to us. So are militaristic and absolute responses, like going to war and the death penalty; things like civil liberties, meanwhile, matter less to us. 

It is unlikely that all of the phenomena discussed above involve the same cognitive mechanism. For instance, disgust sensitivity is probably operating through a different part of the brain than fear sensitivity. Still, priming people to feel either fear or disgust in this context (the need for “cleanliness”) seems to favor political conservatism, and of course, may be manipulated in favour of politically conservative candidates. 

What all of this suggests in conclusion: Maybe we’ve been thinking about political ideology in very much the wrong way. It seems to be at least partly rooted in things deeper and more primal than the policy issues of the day, and how we individually reason that we ought to handle them. And this can be very easily manipulated. 

Moreover, it is striking that the research literature does not, at least at present, contain such a plethora of ways to bring about a temporary left wing shift – to make conservatives move left. Instead, what these cases seem to reveal are some inherent conservative political advantages, especially at times of deep fear, uncertainty, and stress. (And we’ve seen some of those recently.)

Aristotle famously wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.” Perhaps it’s about time that we pay more attention to what the word “nature” here really means. 

However, the more that a society encourages citizens to cooperate and feel concern for the welfare of others, the lower the SDO is in that culture. High levels of national income and empowerment of women are also associated with low national SDO, whereas more traditional societies with lower income, patriarchal organisation and more closed institutional systems are associated with a higher SDO.  

As neoliberals, the Conservatives see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships hierarchically, based on a model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged and modified. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined economic outcomes and politically defined norms are stigmatised and outgrouped. 

Othering and outgrouping have become common political practices, it seems. 

Rhetoric that draws on dehumanising language may be used to desensitise citizens to the welfare of others, as previously discussed. The media is sometimes used to amplify demogogues – leaders who gain popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the public, by appealing directly to the emotions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned debate and decorum. Demagogues quite often overturn established customs of political conduct and democracy, and have no empathy for those outgroups that they direct the public’s manipulated prejudices towards. 

The rise of the of the Conservative demagogue and the return of political incorrectness 

As a political idiom, Conservatism seems unlikely to spawn demagogues. However, the rise of the neoliberal New Right marked a radical break with tradition for the Conservatives. 

Demagogues often advocate immediate, forceful action to address a “national crisis” (corresponding with a danger-themed worldview) while accusing moderate and thoughtful opponents of “weakness” or “disloyalty”. Or even “economic incompetence”. Demagogues are skilled at turning power deriving from popular support into a force that undermines the very freedoms and rule of law that democracies are made to protect. 

The most fundamental technique of all demagogues is scapegoating: blaming an ingroup’s problems on an outgroup, usually of a different socioeconomic class, ethnicity or religion. For example, the Conservatives exploited a global economic crisis to begin dismantling the welfare state, unforgivably stigmatising and outgrouping disabled people and others claiming lifeline social security, and targeting them with an extremely disproportionate and punitive burden of austerity cuts, using the media to amplify their construction of folk devils to stir up public moral panic

People who need welfare support were portrayed as “scroungers” and “frauds” (regardless of the fact that this is largely untrue) to desensitise the public regarding the often devastating impacts of the subsequent draconian policy programme. 

Demagogues have often encouraged their supporters to violently intimidate opponents, both to solidify loyalty among their supporters and to discourage or physically prevent people from speaking out or voting against them.

Image result for crush the saboteursMost demagogues make a show of appearing to be down-to-Earth, ordinary citizens just like the people whose votes they seek.

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                      Who are they trying to kid?

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Ideologies that promote or maintain group inequality are the tools that legitimise discrimination. To work, ideologies appear as self-apparent truths, while those that promote them appeal to emotions and prejudice. The use of slogans as a vehicle for emotive messaging is also common among demagogues. 

Like “Taking our country back” , “Are you thinking what we’re thinking” and other political straplines that indicate clearly that the “Big Society” isn’t so big on equality and diversity. However, as history ought to have taught us, nationalist demagogues don’t simply target the group that you may dislike. They move on to other social groups – usually scapegoating those with the least power to divert you from the damage that those with the most power are inflicting on our society.  

Even “Strong and stable leadership”, trotted out over and over, amidst the fourth wave of feminist activism, is coming from a party that is notoriously resistant to structural change through positive discrimination schemes. There is lots of evidence that self declared “strong leaders” (rather than democratic ones) are usually not, and can cause a lot of damage, politically and in the workplace.

“Strong leadership” most often entails the promotion of a compelling vision by such leaders of a totalistic nature; individual consideration, expressed in a “recruitment system” designed to activate a process analogous to conversion; and the promotion of a culture characterized by conformity and the penalising of dissent. This is a feature of neoliberalism rarely discussed: it’s incompatible with democracy and human rights. 

Pinochet promised “strong leadership and economic stability”, following his coup d’état and subsequent neoliberal experiment, aided and abetted by the Chicago boys. Both Pinochet’s Chile and Hitler’s Germany highlight the dangers of self proclaimed “strong leaders” with a liking for positivism, technocratic “solutions” and a disregard for democracy and human rights. Neoliberalism requires an authoritarian government to impose it, as it invariably leads to the repression of the majority of people, and the “economic freedom” of a small, privileged group.

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Demagogues often seem to be incoherent and glib, but it is because they tailor their public messaging to meet the perceptions and attitudes of a variety of groups, aiming at as wide an audience as possible, hoping to appeal to everyone.

However, those peddling right wing “populist” think narratives generally commit intellectual malpractice, as the foundation of their superficial anti-elitism is founded on yet more social oppression, hierarchies, supremicist reasoning, prejudice and constructed categories of social scapegoats. It’s little more than a flimsy sales pitch for more elitism. And welfare chauvinism.  

Many demagogues also focus on the exploitation of national “crises” to push through controversial policies while citizens are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters, upheavals or wars to mount an effective resistance. Neoliberalism is the ultimate form of such “disaster capitalism”. 

I don’t level the terms “authoritarian”, “demagogue” and “populist” arbitrarily against politicians I don’t like: these are categories that have been academically established following vigorous research, quite independently of my own views. 

Right wing demagogues tend to present a tax paying, beleaguered white middle class of economic “producers,” encouraging them to see themselves as being inexorably squeezed by parasitic groups above and below.

The rage is whipped up and directed upwards against a caricature of the conspiratorial “faceless bureaucrats,” “banksters” and “plutocrats” – rather than challenging an unfair economic system run on behalf of the privileged and powerful wealthy and corporate interests. The attacks and oppression generated by such populist white rage, however, is most painfully felt by those that are scapegoated with perceived lower socioeconomic status and historically. this has always been immigrants, refugees, and other traditionally marginalized groups, such as disabled people, lone parents and those out of work. 

Meanwhile the media is used as a political tool to erect fact proof screens around fundamental truths.

To divert opposition to this process, we have a manufactured and confusing era of “fake news” and “post truth” that suits state agendas. We have extensive state surveilance, and “behaviour change” programmes, which include the online presence of covert astroturfers and psychological operations teams attempting to infiltrate, manipulate, warp and control online discourse and public perception, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.

The Conservative’s behaviour change agenda is also embedded in public policies that target in particular those who are the casualties of government economic policies, to imply blame in order to stigmatise and punish people, while systematically withdrawing our social security support and public services, and withdrawing the means of redress and remedy – legal aid has gone. Yet the Conservatives know that without equal access to justice, ordinary people simply cease to be free.

The rise of right wing political populists threatens democracy worldwide, says a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) released earlier this month. 

Trump and other populist leaders work from a similar propaganda crib sheet that supports bigotry, prejudice and discrimination; scapegoats immigrants and refugees for economic problems; encourages people to give up their rights in favour of authoritarian rule as a defense against perceived “outside threats”; and foments division between demographics, the report states.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth says: “The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights. Trump and various politicians in Europe seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism. They all claim that the public accepts violations of human rights as supposedly necessary to secure jobs, avoid cultural change, or prevent terrorist attacks. In fact, disregard for human rights offers the likeliest route to tyranny.”

Roth cited Trump’s campaign promises to curtail women’s and minority rights, deport millions of immigrants, use torture against detainees, and crack down on freedom of the press, as examples of “the politics of intolerance.”

Roth goes on to say: “We forget at our peril the demagogues of the past: the fascists, communists, and their ilk who claimed privileged insight into the majority’s interest but ended up crushing the individual. When populists treat rights as obstacles to their vision of the majority will, it is only a matter of time before they turn on those who disagree with their agenda.”

He also noted parallel campaigns in Europe that used xenophobia and nationalism to encourage people to vote away their rights, with Brexit being one of the most prominent outcomes.

He’s right. This kind of nationalist and anti-European rhetoric endangers not only economic prosperity, but also democracy. 

Political incorrectness is still incorrect

Back in 2000, Hugo Young wrote an article in the Guardian entitled Enoch Powell was expelled for this kind of demagoguery. Quoting William Hague, he says: “Labour has made this country a soft touch for the organised asylum racketeers who are flooding the country with bogus asylum seekers.” 

“That translates: asylum is ipso facto a racket, aliens are taking over Britain, every one of them is a fraudster until proved otherwise. All that’s missing is the Tiber flowing with blood.

“For we’ve been here before. The only difference between Enoch Powell’s philippic in 1968 against the migrant masses whose numbers were destroying the British nation, and Mr Hague’s demagogic caricature of asylum in 2000, is that whereas Powell was expelled from the shadow cabinet for saying what he said, today’s shadow cabinet has made his political strategy their own.

“Ann Widdecombe, Hague’s blustering ally in this matter, finds it perfectly respectable to list each of the mild pro-immigrant measures Labour has taken since 1997 as part of her anti-asylum indictment, without ever referring to the causes of the increased demand. As far as the Tory party is concerned, the Kosovo war never happened and Balkan, let alone Somali or Rwandan or Nigerian or Colombian, tragedies do not exist – though Rhodesia looks like being an exception.

“A screen of respectability sometimes covers Mr Hague’s own words. There are references to the need to protect “genuine” asylum-seekers from the rest. But here is authentic bogusness, the genuine bogus article, addressed to a party which in its present incarnation shows no interest in asylum-seekers of any kind, the genuine any more than the deceiving.

“Any such refinement would complicate the political message, now delivered into the local elections, that the Tories alone can be relied on to take a harsh line against the flooding influx of racketeering aliens.”

It’s possible to identify an emergent right wing populist theme right here. And an overall strategy for creating scapegoats. I can’t help but wonder how many of those ordinary people who felt that Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech “spoke to them” would feel the same resonance with what he wrote about hospital waiting lists in his book Medicine and Politics:

“It might (!) be thought macabre to observe that if people are on a waiting list long enough, they will die—usually from some cause other than that for which they joined the queue. Short of dying, however, they frequently get bored or better, and vanish.”

Nobody really knows if Powell has ever tried to make a joke, but if he has that passage was not it. It was written, with much more in the same heartless vein, by a man who was once Minister of Health. 

During a meeting with parents of babies that had been born with severe deformities caused by the morning sickness drug thalidomide, he was remarkably unsympathetic to the victims, refusing to meet any with affected babies. He simply said that “anyone who took so much as an aspirin put himself at risk.”

Powell had an unrepentant contempt for popular opinion, despite his apparent rapport with supporters of “ethnic nationalism” and a dark void where his empathy should have been. The Thatcher era Conservatives, fueled the rise far right groups such as the National Front. Cameron’s government fueled the rise of UKIP. It suits their purpose in creating social division and diversion. As for Powell, well he was simply an unrepentant, ruthlessly ambitious capitalist politician.

Powell also refused to launch a public inquiry into the Thalidomide scandal, resisted calls to issue a warning against any left-over thalidomide pills that might remain in people’s medicine cabinets (as US President John F. Kennedy had done), and said “I hope you’re not going to sue the Government…. No one can sue the Government.”

Since Powell, there has always been an easily identifiable racial minority for the Tories to blame for all working class problems and frustrations usually created by the Conservatives.

Many of the socially liberal democratic gains made in the form of our post-war sttlement for the UK citizenry are being dismantled by the Conservatives, and they show no shame in using a “them and us” rhetoric to achieve it. That is, each time they have created a convenient “them” to point to. 

And that’s the thing about fascism and demagoguery. It grows. Fascists don’t just target and punish social groups that you may not like. They add to their repertoire all the time. First it may be “foreigners”, next it may be disabled people and those without jobs, then the elderly.

A fascist is a fascist, regardless of who you are and how safe from prejudice you think you may be. The truth is that no-one who is an ordinary citizen is safe. Prejudice multitasks. The growth of social prejudice, originating from nationalism, has historically led some societies to commit the most terrible and inhumane acts.

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In light of this discussion, I don’t understand Conservatism one bit. I can’t understand why it has persisted. The Conservatives, from Thatcher onwards, have remained disciples of the anec­dotal dictator who thought that the way to eradicate pov­erty in Chile was to kill poor people by slow starvation, and “disappear” his many opponents.

I don’t understand ordinary people who support the Conservatives, because their “long term economic plan” has to be enforced by an authoritarian government. It will entail an incremental closing down of trade union activity, the loss of even basic citizens rights, the prohibition of all political activities and all forms of free expression, including on the internet, which the Conservatives intend to regulate and control.

It will entail the constant division and reduction of our society into further “us and them” categories. It will require the use of cultivated widespread public fear and anxiety as a constant diversion to the growing inequalities, human rights abuses and mass poverty that the government intend to inflict on the UK via the neoliberal policy programme.

I don’t understand how anyone can fail to see that state oppression – repression for the majorities and “economic freedom” for a minority of privileged groups – are two sides of the same Conservative coin drawn from a neoliberal currency. I don’t understand why people cannot see this unfolding now.

I don’t understand why the penny hasn’t yet dropped.


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Dying from inequality: socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour – report from Samaritans

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As Samaritans release a report ahead of Wednesday’s Budget linking inequality with a higher risk of suicide, the charity is calling on the government, businesses, industry and sector leaders to be aware of the risks of suicide and to direct support to those with unstable employment, insecure housing, low income or in areas of socioeconomic deprivation.

The report, Dying from Inequality, produced in conjunction with leading researchers and academics, is far-reaching and highlights clear areas of risk to communities and individuals, including the closure and downsizing of businesses, those in manual, low-skilled employment, those facing unmanageable debt and those with poor housing conditions.

In today’s press release, Samaritans’ CEO Ruth Sutherland says, “Suicide is an inequality issue that we have known about for some time, this report says that’s not right, it’s not fair and it’s got to change. Most importantly this report sets out, for the first time, what needs to happen to save lives. Addressing inequality would remove the barriers to help and support where they are needed most and reduce the need for that support in the first place. Government, public services, employers, service providers, communities, family and friends all have a role in making sure help is relevant and accessible when it matters most.

“Everyone can feel overwhelmed at times in their life. People at risk of suicide may have employers, or they may seek help at job centres, or go to their GP. They may come into contact with national and local government agencies, perhaps on a daily basis. So, in the light of this report we are asking key people and organisations from across society, for example those working in housing, in businesses, medical staff, job centre managers, to all take action to make sure their service, their organisation, their community is doing all it can to promote mental health and prevent the tragedy of suicide. 

Samaritans has already started addressing the inequalities driving people to suicide, by making its helpline number free to call, by calling on Government for more frontline staff to be trained in suicide prevention in England and by campaigning for local authorities to have effective suicide prevention plans in place. Now, in response to the findings of this report, the next steps will involve instigating working groups, in different sectors, bringing together businesses and charities who can influence in the areas highlighted, in order to tackle this issue in a collaborative, systematic and effective way to ensure that fewer people die by suicide.”

Sutherland continues: “Each suicide statistic is a person. The employee on a zero hour’s contract is somebody’s parent or child. A person at risk of losing their home may be a sibling or a friend. And each one of them will leave others devastated, and potentially more disadvantaged too, if they take their own life. This is a call for us as individuals to care more and for organisations that can make a difference, to do so.”

She went on to say: “Living in poverty shouldn’t mean losing your life. Going through difficult times like losing your job or being in debt shouldn’t mean not wanting to live. But that is what’s happening in the UK and Ireland today. Suicide is killing the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people, devastating families and communities.”

Some key points from the report summary:

There is no single reason why people take their own lives. Suicide is a complex and multi-faceted behaviour, resulting from a wide range of psychological, social, economic and cultural risk factors which interact and increase an individual’s level of risk.

Socioeconomic disadvantage is a key risk factor for suicidal behaviour.

Socioeconomic disadvantage or living in an area of socioeconomic deprivation increases the risk of suicidal behaviour.

The research evidence was considered at three levels: societal, community and individual: 

Societal: political, economic and social policies related to, for example, economic change, employment, social support and the labour market; stigmatised attitudes towards people on the basis of their socioeconomic standing or their suicidal behaviour.

Community: the local economic, social, cultural and physical environment, including, for example, geographical location, job opportunities, service availability and accessibility, and home ownership.

Individual: demographic characteristics, such as gender and age; socioeconomic position, including occupational social class and type of employment; mental health; and health-related behaviours.

Suicide risk increases during periods of economic recession, particularly when recessions are associated with a steep rise in unemployment, and this risk remains high when crises end, especially for individuals whose economic circumstances do not improve. Countries with higher levels of per capita spending on active labour market programmes, and which have more generous unemployment benefits, experience lower recession-related rises in suicides.

During the most recent recession (2008-09), there was a 0.54% increase in suicides for every 1% increase in indebtedness across 20 EU countries, including the UK and Ireland. Social and employment protection for the most vulnerable in society, and labour market programmes to help unemployed people find work, can reduce suicidal behaviour by reducing both the real and perceived risks of job insecurity and by increasing protective factors, such as social contact. In order to be effective, however, programmes must be meaningful to participants and felt to be non-stigmatising.

There is a strong association between area-level deprivation and suicidal behaviour: as area-level deprivation increases, so does suicidal behaviour. Suicide rates are two to three times higher in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to the most affluent.

Admissions to hospital following self-harm are two times higher in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to the most affluent. Multiple and large employer closures resulting in unemployment can increase stress in a local community, break down social connections and increase feelings of hopelessness and depression, all of which are recognised risk factors for suicidal behaviour.  

While the economic situation and policy approaches vary across the nations in which Samaritans operates, the link between socioeconomic disadvantage and increased risk of suicide is evident in all these nations. It is therefore essential that we understand why this link exists. We all need to address this inequality issue which is resulting in the tragic loss of lives.

Features of socioeconomic disadvantage include low income, unmanageable debt, poor housing conditions, lack of educational qualifications, unemployment and living in a socioeconomically deprived area. Individual Individuals experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage and adverse experiences, such as unemployment and unmanageable debt, are at increased risk of suicidal behaviour, particularly during periods of economic recession.

The risk of suicidal behaviour is increased among those experiencing job insecurity and downsizing or those engaged in non-traditional work situations, such as part-time, irregular and short-term contracts with various employers. The experience of being declared bankrupt, losing one’s home or not being able to repay debts to family and friends is not only stressful but can also feel humiliating. This can lead to an increased risk of suicidal behaviour.

The risk of suicidal behaviour increases when an individual faces negative life events, such as adversity, relationship breakdown, social isolation, or experiences stigma, emotional distress or poor mental health.

Socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are more likely to experience ongoing stress and negative life events, thus increasing their risk of suicidal behaviour. In the UK, socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are less likely to seek help for mental health problems than the more affluent, and are less likely to be referred to specialist mental health services following self-harm by GPs located in deprived areas.

Different welfare states have been shown to have different effects on social and health inequalities. High quality public service provision leads to a more cohesive society than policies based on means-testing which may generate social divisions. Given the link between inequalities and suicidal behaviour, labour market policy design can help improve wellbeing and reduce the risk of suicide.

Employment

Evidence on the association between working conditions, debt and suicide suggests that increased, involuntary part-time work, job insecurity and workplace downsizing are important risk factors for suicidal behaviour. It is not only unemployed people who are at increased risk. Employees who keep their jobs during a workplace downsizing may experience job insecurity and negative relationships with their peers, as well as stress from an increased workload. People who are self-employed can also be affected if demand for their business decreases. 

Unemployment benefits

Generous unemployment benefits and other types of social protection can reduce the risk of suicidal behaviour. Suicide rates tend to increase in countries which implement significant budget cuts, which was evident during the 2008-09 recession in some EU countries (Karanikolos et al., 2013). Unemployment benefits compensate for some of the income loss experienced from involuntary unemployment. Depending on the level of benefits, they should help ease financial worries that may lead to suicidal behaviour. However, means-tested benefits may actually contribute to suicidal behaviour, if recipients feel stigmatised, leading to feelings of shame, worthlessness, a loss of status, and a deterioration of mental health.

Employment protection

Strong employment protection should reduce real and perceived risks around job insecurity and unemployment, resulting in a positive impact on mental health. In contrast, weak employment protection is likely to increase real and perceived insecurity, and could lead to precarious forms of employment, such as temporary or zero-hours contracts, with adverse effects on mental health.

Inexperienced workers with low skills are particularly vulnerable in such contexts, since they are most likely to be on contracts which are less well protected and more precarious. The risk of mental health problems is increased among those engaged in non-traditional work situations, such as part-time, irregular and short-term contracts with various employers, especially where there is little or no choice, as well as for those experiencing job insecurity and downsizing. Suicidal behaviour can be reduced amongst the most vulnerable in society through social and employment protection and labour market programmes. This will reduce the real and perceived risks of job insecurity and reduce stigma of unemployment.

Recommendations:

Individuals, communities and wider society can all play a part in reducing the risk of suicidal behaviour. Governments need to take a lead by placing a stronger emphasis on suicide prevention as an inequality issue.

National suicide prevention strategies need to target efforts towards the most vulnerable people and places, in order to reduce geographical inequalities in suicide. Effective cross-governmental approaches are required, with mental health services improved and protected.

Suicide prevention needs to be a government priority in welfare, education, housing and employment policies. Workplaces should have in place a suicide prevention plan, and provide better psychological support to all employees, especially those experiencing job insecurity or those affected by downsizing.

Poverty and debt need to be destigmatised so that individuals feel valued and able to access support without fear of being judged. Every local area should have a suicide prevention plan in place. This should include the development and maintenance of services that provide support to individuals experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage.

Staff and volunteers in services accessed by socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals or groups should receive specialist training in recognising, understanding and responding to individuals who are in distress and may be suicidal (even if they do not say they are feeling suicidal). People bereaved or affected by suicidal behaviour, and therefore at higher risk of suicide themselves, should be offered tailored psychological, practical and financial support particularly in disadvantaged communities.

It is well understood that adverse individual or family circumstances, such as relationship breakdown, unemployment or debt, can result in a higher risk of suicidal behaviour (Gunnell & Chang 2016). What is less well known is the potential impact of the place where people live (neighbourhood, city, region) on the likelihood of suicidal behaviour.

The public health evidence is clear: as area-level deprivation increases, so does suicidal behaviour. For both men and women, those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods are more likely to engage in suicidal behaviour; and every increase in area-level affluence results in a reduction in the risk of suicidal behaviour.

The health of people in a neighbourhood, town, region or country is the product of the demographic, behavioural, socioeconomic and other characteristics of the people who live there. Compositional factors that are likely to increase the risk of suicidal behaviour in areas of socioeconomic deprivation include (O’Reilly et al., 2008; Lorant et al., 2005): experiencing multiple negative life events, such as poor health, unemployment, poor living conditions feeling powerless, stigmatised, disrespected, social disconnectedness, such as social isolation, poor social support other features of social exclusion, such as poverty, and poor educational attainment.

People living in the most deprived areas are more likely to engage in suicidal behaviour. Suicide rates are two to three times higher in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to the most affluent, and rates of hospitalised self-harm are also twice as high. Neighbourhoods that are the most deprived have worse health than those that are less deprived and this association follows a gradient: for each increase in deprivation, there is a decrease in health. Additional support for those living in deprived areas is needed to reduce geographical inequalities in health and the risk of suicidal behaviour.

Experiences of childhood adversity, negative life events, and the cumulative effects of stress are associated with feelings of entrapment and hopelessness and increase the risk of suicidal behaviour, especially among those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Stressful life events and childhood adversity

Exposure to negative life events, particularly those involving loss, such as bereavement or a relationship breakdown, heightens the risk of suicidal behaviour. Socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals are more likely to experience such negative life events, and therefore more likely to engage in suicidal behaviour. Experiencing childhood adversity increases the likelihood that individuals will become socioeconomically disadvantaged in later life.

For example, unemployment is more likely among those who have adverse childhood experiences, particularly men who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Stress response and allostatic load Ongoing exposure to stress and adversity may gradually reduce an individual’s biological stress regulation resources, leading to a cumulative physiological toll known as “allostatic load” (Seeman et al., 2010).

Socioeconomic disadvantage itself is a stressor linked to increased allostatic load, but it may also influence allostatic load indirectly by increasing the likelihood of individuals experiencing childhood adversity and other stressful life events. Increased allostatic load brought about by the chronic and acute stresses associated with socioeconomic disadvantage may contribute to suicidal behaviour.

Socioeconomic disadvantage, from a psychological perspective, makes a major contribution to the occurrence of suicidal behaviour.

 

You can read the full summary report here

The full version of the report will be available on 10th March

 


 

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The still face paradigm, the just world fallacy, inequality and the decline of empathy

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UNICEF’s reports have consistently put the UK at the bottom of the child well-being league table. See also: UNICEF criticises UK’s failure to tackle child inequality as gap grows.

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The still face paradigm and inequality

Before Christmas I read an excellent and insightful article by Michael Bader called The Decline of Empathy and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics, which was about Edward Tronick’s Still Face experiment in part. Tronick is an American developmental psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His studies illuminate the importance of trusting relationships and consistent human responses in children’s development and learning.

Tronick’s experimental design was very simple: mothers were asked to play as they usually would with their six-month-old infants. The mothers were then instructed to suddenly blank their face: to make their facial expression flat and neutral – completely “still”  – and to do so for three minutes, regardless of her baby’s activity.  Mothers were then told to resume normal play. The design came to be called the “still face paradigm.

The study demonstrated that when the connection between an infant and caregiver is broken, the infant tries to re-engage the caregiver, and then, if there is no response, the infant withdraws – first physically and then emotionally. Recent studies have found that four-month-old infants, when re-exposed to the “Still Face” two weeks after the first time, show rapid physiological changes that were not present when they were exposed to it the first time.

Tronick said: “It speaks to the incredible emotional capacities [of] the infant — to pick up on the fact that the mother’s not reacting emotionally the way she normally does. The baby has not only this ability to process what’s [happening], but [also] the capacity to respond in a really appropriate way — that is, they try to get the mother’s attention, and then when they fail, they give up, with a sense of their own helplessness. They may be angry and then they become sad.”

Tronick also emphasised the impact of parenting practices embedded in the sociocultural and ecological environment of the infant.

Bader’s inspiring article draws on Tronick’s experimental findings, which he then applies to citizen’s life experiences in the US, in the face of dehumanising encounters with bureacracy, increasingly depopulated policies and a profoundly alienating sociopolitical system. He goes on to discuss how “the pain of the “still face” in American society is present all around us.”

He says: “People feel it while waiting for hours on the phone for technical support, or dealing with endless menus while on hold with the phone or cable company, or waiting to get through to their own personal physician. They feel it in schools with large class sizes and rote teaching aimed only at helping students pass tests.  

They feel it when crumbling infrastructure makes commuting to work an endless claustrophobic nightmare.  And, too often, they feel it when interacting with government agencies that hold sway over important areas of their lives, such as social services […] and city planning departments, or a Department of Motor Vehicles.  Like Tronick’s babies, citizens who look to corporations and government for help, for a feeling of being recognized and important, are too often on a fool’s errand, seeking recognition and a reciprocity that is largely absent. 

This problem is greatly exaggerated by the profoundly corrosive effects of social and economic inequality. Under condition of inequality, the vulnerability of those seeking empathy is dramatically ramped up, leading to various forms of physical and psychological breakdowns. In a classic epidemiological study [The Spirit Level] by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, researchers found a strong correlation between the degree of inequality in a country (or a state, for that matter) and such problems as rates of imprisonment, violence, teenage pregnancies, obesity rates, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and addiction, lower literacy scores, and a wide range of poor health outcomes, including reduced life expectancy. 

Wilkinson and Pickett’s key finding is that it is the inequality itself, and not the overall wealth of a society that is the key factor in creating these various pathologies.  Poorer places with more equality do better than wealthy ones marked by gross inequality.

Inequality makes people feel insecure, preoccupied with their relative status and standing, and vulnerable to the judgment of others, and it creates a greater degree of social distance between people that deprives them of opportunities for intimate and healing experiences of recognition and empathy.”

The still face of the neoliberal state

It’s impossible to fail to recognise the parallels with citizen’s experiences here in Britain. We have ideological and socioeconomic commonality with the US, especially as both the UK and US are neoliberal states. Neoliberalism is an ongoing, totalising ideological and political-economic project of a resurgent political right that gained ascendancy in the US under Ronald Reagan and in the UK under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.   

Bader says: “As a metaphor for adult life in contemporary society, the “still face” paradigm—the helplessness intrinsic to it and the breakdown of empathy that lies at its foundation—aptly describes the experience of many people as they interact with the most important institutions in their lives, including government.

And, as with Tronick’s babies and their mothers, when our social milieu is indifferent to our needs and inattentive to our suffering, widespread damage is done to our psyches, causing distress, anger, and hopelessness.  Such inattention and neglect lead to anxiety about our status and value, and a breakdown of trust in others.”

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I agree that the growing inequalities we are witnessing in western neoliberal “democracies” create profound psychological trauma and ontological insecurity. Humans are fundamentally social beings. We thrive best when we have a social rationale which tends towards the promotion of cooperative and collective creativity. This was perhaps expressed best in our civilised, progressive institutions and civilising practices, facilitated by the social gains and economic organisation that arose from the post-war settlement.  

Those gains are now being systematically dismantled. Our culture has been saturated with conceptual schema that demand we remain committed to an socioeconomic Darwinism, a kind of economic enclosure: a neoliberal competitive individualist obsession with our private, inner experiences, the pursuit of economic self-interest, and ultimately, this embellishes our separability from other human beings. It alienates us. 

Neoliberalism scripts social interactions that are founded on indifference to others, tending to be dehumanising, adversarial and hierarchical in nature, rather than social and cooperative. Neoliberalism is the antithesis of the responsive, animated human face; of collectivism, mutual support, universalism, cooperation and democracy. Neoliberalism has transformed our former liberal democracy into an authoritarian “still faced” state that values production, competition and profit above all else; including citizens’ lives, experiences, freedoms, well-being, democratic inclusion and social conditions that support all of this.  

Citizens are seen and are being politically redefined in isolation from the broader political, economic, sociocultural and reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape individual experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. This also places responsibility on citizens for circumstances which lie outside of their control, such as the socioeconomic consequences of political decision-making, whilst at the same time, the state is steadily abdicating responsibility for the basic welfare of ordinary citizens. 

Geographer David Harvey describes neoliberalism as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets.  

Neoliberals see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined outcomes are stigmatised and outgrouped.  

Stigma is a political and cultural attack on people’s identities. It’s used to discredit, and as justification for excluding some groups from economic and political consideration, refusing them full democratic citizenship. 

Stigma is being used politically to justify the systematic withdrawal of support and public services for the poorest – the casualties of a system founded on competition for allegedly scarce wealth and resources. Competition inevitably means there are winners and losers. Stigma is profoundly oppressive. It is used as a propaganda mechanism to draw the public into collaboration with the state, to justify punitive and discriminatory policies and to align citizen “interests” with rigid neoliberal outcomes. Inclusion, human rights, equality and democracy are not compatible with neoliberalism. 

Othering and outgrouping have become common political practices, and are now culturally embedded. 

This serves to desensitise the public to the circumstances of marginalised social groups. Outgroups serve to de-empathise society and dehumanise stigmatised others

This political and cultural process legitimises neoliberal “small state” policies, such as the systematic withdrawal of state support for those adversely affected by neoliberalism, and it also justifies inequality. By stigmatising the poorest citizens, a “default setting” is established regarding how the public ought to perceive and behave towards politically demarcated outgroups. That default setting is indifference to the plight of others. 

Authors of The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, say “The truth is that human beings have deep-seated psychological responses to inequality and social hierarchy. The tendency to equate outward wealth with inner worth means that inequality colours our social perceptions. It invokes feelings of superiority and inferiority, dominance and subordination – which affect the way we relate to and treat each other.”

Neoliberalism and the myth of meritocracy

How does inequality and social injustice become acceptable? And why do we, as a society, permit the political construction of scapegoats and outgroups? 

Neoliberalism is premised on the assumption that the market place can somehow replace the state as the ultimate arbiter of cultural logic and value. Relationships between people are mediated by the depersonalising market place.

It is fundamentally Hobbesian in character, neoliberalism privatises citizen’s experiences, who are valued for their economic productivity and are therefore only responsible for themselves.

Bader says: “The failure of our institutions to empathize with the plight of the middle and working classes, to recognize their sacrifice and reward their hard work is traumatic. It is the same type of trauma that children experience when their caretakers are preoccupied or rejecting. The trauma erodes trust. It overwhelms systems that people have developed to deal with stress and creates psychological suffering and illness.” 

He goes on to tell us how our social brains seek a collective experience – of “we” rather than “I” – and often do so by creating a fantasy of an “us” versus “them” that we can devalue and fight.

Tribalism draws on our need for sociability and interconnectedness but it can also be used to pervert it. Rejected by government, employers and wider society, some citizens then go on to reject and demean others. It’s a coping strategy: they are trying to cope with the pain, powerlessness, and lack of empathy that they experience in their social lives.

And we must we also recognise the play of hidden ideologies and the influence of dog whistle and wedge issue politicking. This is a state tactic which manipulates our fundamental human need for a sense of belonging. It’s also about the creation of scapegoats and diversion from the real problem: neoliberalism, authoritarianism and the inequality and increasing precarity that this extends and perpetuates. Hierarchical thinking is embedded in neoliberal and authoritarian ideologies.

Neoliberalism also extends a myth that citizens are autonomous and free to make choices. However, this ignores the well-researched reality that those without resources have few or no choices. 

Neoliberalism is an ideology that manufactures consent to inequalities by offering the myth of meritocracy: the false promise that everyone will eventually benefit by working hard to earn merit, status and wealth. However, it isn’t logically possible for equal opportunities to exist in a highly unequal society. 

This myth undermines the principles of social and economic rights and discredits solidarity, collective responsibility and contravenes our human need for belonging. Success, according to the meritocrats, is shaped by your IQ and individual talents, hard work and personal effort. Yet at least a third of those touting this myth are millionaires who simply inherited their wealth.   

The ideology of meritocracy conceals the fact that class privileges are institutionalised, and are reinforced through the education system, for example. The UNICEF report, Fairness for Children, emphasised the importance of a strong welfare system in reducing inequality – and carried a strong suggestion that the UK Government should reconsider its cuts to benefits. In June last year, following its investigation, the United Nations committee on the rights of the child called on ministers to act regarding austerity, the benefit cap and tax credit cuts, which are undermining children’s rights to an adequate standard of living. The government were also urged to do more to ensure children’s rights to adequate health, housing and education are met, too. 

The government, however, have claimed that welfare cuts reduce poverty by “incentivising” people to work. Meanwhile, over half of those families queuing at food banks are in work, and nearly two thirds of children in poverty live in working families. “Making work pay” is nothing more than a Conservative euphemism for the incremental dismantling of the welfare state, which they intend to continue, regardless of the social consequences. 

Neoliberalism is sustained by ideologues employed by governments, in think tanks, PR companies and as individual consultants, that invent technical justifications for small state neoliberal policies on the grounds of: “efficiencies”, savings, democracy, economic growth, and more recently “fairness” and “social justice.” The latter two especially are founded on the myth of meritocracy, in this context. 

In any competitive system, there are invariably a few “winners” and many more “losers”.  The system itself creates the conditions which mean that many people “lose”. It has nothing to do with the IQ, character or qualities of those people. Competition is adversarial – it’s defined as a situation in which two or more people or groups are fighting to get something which not everyone can have

The Nudge Unit is one example of a technocratic think tank that promotes the myth of meritocracy, which is embedded in the Cabinet Office. The neoliberal Reform think tank and the Adam Smith Institution are others. There is a raft of contemporary academics who are also fueling ideological justifications of neoliberal policies – the likes of Adam Perkins, Richard Layard, Mansel Aylward and Simon Wessley, for example, each in their respective academic fields have each presented “studies” that endorse “small state” antiwelfarism and enforce notions of personal responsibility and competitive individualism. Public interests are steadily being aligned with economic outcomes, driven by private interests. 

Status and rewards in society do not go “naturally” to those who are best “performers” or those who “earn” their privilege: the hierarchy of wealth and power is being purposefully shaped by the state.

Stigma and the just world fallacy

Sociologist Imogen Tyler at Lancaster University, says “[…] the centrality of stigma in producing economic and social inequalities has been obscured ‘because bodies of research pertaining to specific stigmatized statuses have generally developed in separate domains’ (Hatzenbuehler, 2013). In short, stigma is widely accepted to be a major factor in determining life chances, yet research on stigma is fragmented across academic disciplines.”

Tyler’s ongoing work – The Stigma Doctrine, is focused on policy design and implementation, ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ aims to develop a new theoretical account of the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the production and mediation of stigma.” 

Her explicit focus is on “stigmatization as a central dimension of neoliberal state-crafting.” The project is focussing in particular on welfare “reform”, the neoliberal de/recomposition of class, poverty, work and dis/abilities.

At a basic level, stigma is seen as a mark of disgrace associated with particular circumstances, qualities, or persons. However, it has a fundamental normative dimension, which is culturally and historically specific. 

We tend to make assumptions about people, based on what their circumstances or characteristics are. Central to these assumptions lies a basic moral dichotomy founded on the binary notions of “deserving” and “undeserving”. 

Everyone has heard “what goes around comes around” before, or maybe you’ve seen a person “get what was coming to them” and thought, “that’s karma for you.” These are all shades of the just world fallacy. But in reality, we don’t always “reap what we sow.”

In social psychology, the just world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to – or expect consequences as the result of – a universal force that restores moral balance. This belief generally implies the existence of destiny, cosmic justice, or divine providence. 

It is very common in fiction for the villains to lose and the virtuous folk to win. It is a reflection of how we would like to see the world – just and fair. In psychology the tendency to believe that this is how the real world actually works is a known cognitive error: the just world is a fallacy. 

Many people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and fair place, where people simply get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important role in our lives – in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences. 

Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we either act to restore justice by helping victims or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred.  We comfort ourselves with the idea that the person without a job is simply lazy, the homeless person is irresponsible, and the ill person made the “wrong” lifestyle choices. These attitudes are continually reinforced in the ubiquitous fairy tales, fables, popular fiction, comics, TV, the mainstream media, current political rhetoric and other morality tales of our culture, including the great myth of meritocracy, embedded in neoliberal narrative, in which “good” is always rewarded and “evil” punished. Only it isn’t.

Deep down, we all would probably like to believe hard work and virtue will lead to success, and laziness, evil and manipulation will lead to ruin, quite often we simply edit the world to match those expectations. 

The normalisation of socioeconomic hierarchy: a nod to Milgram

Social psychologist, Melvin Lerner documents people’s eagerness to convince themselves that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and victims their suffering. In a 1965 study, Lerner reported that subjects who were told that a fellow student had won a cash prize in a lottery tended to believe that the student worked harder than another student who lost the lottery. Lerner observed that when one of two men was chosen at random to receive a reward for a task, that somehow caused him to be more favourably evaluated by observers, even when the observers had been informed that the recipient of the reward was chosen at random. (Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85(5), 1030–1051).

Existing social psychological theories, including cognitive dissonance, do not fully explain these phenomena. In another study a year later, Lerner and a colleague recorded a simulated “learning” experiment in which it appeared that the “participants” were subjected to electric shocks. Lerner found that subjects who observed the videotapes tended to form much lower opinions of these “victimised” participants when there was no possibility of the victim finding relief from the ordeal, or when the victim took on the role of “martyr” by voluntarily remaining in the experiment despite the apparent unpleasantness of the experience.

Lerner concluded that “the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character.”

If the belief in a just world simply resulted in humans feeling more comfortable with the universe, its uncertainties and our own precarity, it would not be a matter of great concern for human rights activists, ethicists or social scientists. But Lerner’s just world hypothesis, if correct, has significant social implications. The belief in a just world may well seriously undermine a commitment to social justice.

So, the just world fallacy is founded on a massive misconception: that we always get what we “deserve”. We like to think that people who are not doing well in their lives must have done something to deserve it. Yet we also know that the beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and people doing harmful deeds often get away with their actions without consequences.

Lerner’s research extended, to some extent, on Stanley Milgram‘s research on social conformity and obedience. Lerner was curious as to how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering manage to maintain popular support, and how people come to accept social norms and laws that produce misery and suffering.

Lerner’s direction of inquiry was influenced by his frequent witnessing of the tendency of observers to blame victims for their suffering, particularly during his clinical training as a psychologist, when he observed treatment of mentally ill persons by the health care practitioners with whom he worked. Though he knew them to be basically kind, educated people, they often blamed patients for the patients’ own suffering. Lerner also describes his surprise at hearing his students derogate disadvantaged people, believing that poor people somehow caused their own poverty, whilst being seemingly oblivious to the social, political and economic (structural) forces that contribute significantly to poverty. 

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of the UCLA conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more Conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes and and hold prejudices toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but nonetheless significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to “feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.”

It’s ironic that the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice. When that occurs, the result may be the abdication of personal responsibility, acquiescence in the face of suffering and misfortune, and indifference towards injustice

In the murky waters of real life, evil people often prosper whilst harming others, and quite often never face justice and retribution.

Social reality isn’t founded on some intrinsic and fair principle or quality of the universe. Social justice is something that we must construct and re-construct our selves. In the same way, democracy isn’t something we “have”, it is something we must do.

As a society, we make our own “karma”. We participate in, shape and distribute social justice. That affects those around us. We do need to think about what kind of world we live in, how we ought to live and how that affects our families, friends, neighbours and strangers. A measure of civilisation may be observed in how we behave towards those people we don’t know.

In our society, over the past 6 years, some (previously protected) social groups have become politically defined strangers and economic exiles. If you think that’s okay, it’s worth bearing in mind that sooner or later, someone you know well, perhaps one of your loved ones, will be affected by this ongoing process.

When one group are targeted with injustice and inequality, it affects everyone, and other groups soon follow. Historically, we learned that tyrants don’t stick with targeting and persecuting the group you don’t like. You don’t get a choice ultimately. Prejudice tends to multitask very well, and tyrants remain tyrants no matter who you are.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s research on the harmful effects of economic inequality is a challenge for us to ensure that redistribution is the main focus of our political programme. Their research very clearly shows us that if we work towards greater equality, we can ameliorate a wide range of human suffering. Because neoliberal ideology ultimately disconnects us from each other, we really must work hard to seek common ground with the people on the other side of what American sociologist, Arlie Hochschild, calls the “empathy wall” to reach out, communicate to them that “we not only feel their pain, but we share it, and that, in the end, we are all in this together.”

Hochschild’s work has often described the various ways in which we each  becomes a “shock absorber” of larger social, economic and political forces.  She explores the “deep story” of American citizens – a metaphorical expression of the emotions they live by. She recognised that the people she studied may not vote in favour of their economic self-interest, but they often voted for what they felt was their emotional self-interest as members of a group which feels marginalised, scorned and betrayed by the establishment. This sense of betrayal was utilised by the right, who readily draw on and manipulate the role of emotion in politics.

How much more of the current political-economic just world narrative will people permit to remain largely unchallenged before we all say “enough”?

In democracies, Government’s are elected to represent and serve the needs of the population. Democracy is not only about elections. It is also about distributive and social justice. The quality of the democratic process, including transparent and accountable Government and equality before the law, is crucial to social organisation, yet it seems the moment we become distracted, less attentive and permit inequality to fundamentally divide our society, the essential details and defining features of democracy seem to melt into air. 

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, all citizen’s accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter.

However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly depopulated; detached from public interests and needs.

Democracy is not something we have: it’s something we have to DO.

My hope for 2017 is that enough of us will recognise that democratic participation is essential, and that injustice directed against one is injustice ultimately directed against all. 

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All the best for the new year. 

In solidarity.

Related  

The Decline of Empathy and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics – Michael Bader

Who Believes in a Just World? –  Zick Rubin and Letitia Anne Peplau 

The Stigma Project – Imogen Tyler

The Spirit Level authors: why society is more unequal than ever – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

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

 


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Initial thoughts on the work, health and disability green paper

proper Blond

I’ve read the government’s Work, health and disability green paper: improving lives and consultation from end to end. It took me a while, because I am ill and not always able to work consistently, reliably and safely. It’s also a very long and waffling document. I am one of those people that the proposals outlined in this green paper is likely to affect. I read the document very carefully.

Here are a few of my initial thoughts on what I read. It’s organised as best I can manage, especially given the fact that despite being dismally unsurprised, I am scathing.

The context indicates the general intent

“The fact is that Ministers are looking for large savings at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable. That was not made clear in the general election campaign; then, the Prime Minister said that disabled people would be protected.”Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, Official Report, Commons, 2/3/16; cols. 1052-58.

I always flinch when the government claim they are going to “help” sick and disabled people into work. That usually signals further cuts to lifeline support and essential services are on the way, and that the social security system is going to be ground down a little further, to become the dust of history and a distant memory of a once civilised society. 

If the government genuinely wanted to “help” sick and disabled people into work, I’m certain they would not have cut the Independent Living Fund, which has had a hugely negative impact on those trying their best to lead independent and dignified lives, and the Access To Work funding has been severely cut, this is also a fund that helps people and employers to cover the extra living costs arising due to disabilities that might present barriers to work.

The government also made the eligibility criteria for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) – a non-means tested out-of- work and an in-work benefit – much more difficult to meet, in order to simply reduce successful claims and cut costs. This has also meant that thousands of people have lost their motability vehicles and support.

Earlier this year, it was estimated at least 14,000 disabled people have had their mobility vehicle confiscated after the changes to benefit assessment, which are carried out by private companies. 

Under the PIP rules, thousands more people who rely on this support to keep their independence are set to lose their vehicles – specially adapted cars or powered wheelchairs. Many had been adapted to meet their owners’ needs and many campaigners warn that it will lead to a devastating loss of independence for disabled people.

A total of 45% or 13,900 people, were deemed as not needing the higher rate of PIP, and therefore lost their vehicles after reassessment. And out of the 31,200 people who were once on the highest rate of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) who have been reassessed, just 55%, or 17,300 – have kept their car.

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In 2012, Esther McVey, then the Minister for people with disabilities, as good as admitted there are targets to reduce or remove eligibility for the new disability benefit PIP, which was to replace DLA. How else could she know in advance of people’s reassessment that 330,000 of claimants are expected to either lose their benefit altogether or see their payments reduced as she had informed the House of Commons. 

This was a clear indication that the new assessment framework was designed to cut support for disabled people. A recent review led the government to conclude that PIP doesn’t currently fulfil the original policy intent, which was to cut costs and “target” the benefit to an ever-shrinking category of “those with the greatest need.” 

The Government was twice defeated in the Lords over their proposals to cut Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) for sick and disabled people in the work related activity group (WRAG) from £103 to £73. However the £30 a week cut is to go ahead after bitterly disappointed and angry peers were left powerless to continue to oppose the Commons, which has overturned both defeats.

The government hammered through the cuts of £120 a month to the lifeline income of ill and disabled people by citing the “financial privilege” of the Commons, and after Priti Patel informing the Lords, with despotic relish, that they had “overstepped their mark” in opposing the cuts twice. 

A coalition of 60 national disability charities condemned the government’s cuts to benefits as a “step backwards” for sick and disabled people and their families. The Disability Benefits Consortium said that the cuts, which will see people lose up to £1,500 a year, will leave disabled people feeling betrayed by the government and will have a damaging effect on their health, finances and ability to find work. 

Research by the Consortium suggests the low level of benefit is already failing to meet disabled people’s needs. A survey of 500 people in the affected group found that 28 per cent of people had been unable to afford to eat while in receipt of the benefit. Around 38 per cent of respondents said they had been unable to heat their homes and 52 per cent struggled to stay healthy.

Watching the way the wind blows

Earlier this year I wrote that a government advisor, who is a specialist in labor economics and econometrics, has proposed scrapping all ESA sickness and disability benefits. Matthew Oakley, a senior researcher at the Social Market Foundation, recently published a report entitled Closing the gap: creating a framework for tackling the disability employment gap in the UK, in which he proposes abolishing the ESA Support Group.

To meet extra living costs because of disability, Oakley says that existing spending on PIP and the Support Group element of ESA should be brought together to finance a new extra costs benefit. Eligibility for this benefit should be determined on the basis of need, with an assessment replacing the WCA and PIP assessment. 

I think the word “need” is being redefined to meet politically defined neoliberal economic outcomes. 

Oakely also suggests considering a “role that a form of privately run social insurance could play in both increasing benefit generosity and improving the support that individuals get to manage their conditions and move back to work.” 

I’m sure the rogue company Unum would jump at the opportunity. Steeped in controversy, with a wake of scandals that entailed the company denying people their disabilty insurance, in 2004, Unum entered into a regulatory settlement agreement (RSA) with insurance regulators in over 40 US states. The settlement related to Unum’s handling of disability claims and required the company “to make significant changes in corporate governance, implement revisions to claim procedures and provide for a full re-examination of both reassessed claims and disability insurance claim decisions. 

The company is the top disability insurer in both the United States and United Kingdom. By coincidence, the company has been involved with the UK’s controversial Welfare Reform Bill, advising the government on how to cut spending, particularly on disability support. What could possibly go right? 

It’s difficult to see how someone with a serious, chronic and progressive illness, (which most people in the ESA Support Group have) can actually “manage” their illness and “move back into work.” The use of the extremely misinformed, patronising and very misleading term manage implies that very ill people actually have some kind of choice in the matter.

For people with Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis, cancer and kidney failure, for example, mind over matter doesn’t fix those problems, positive thinking and sheer will power cannot cure these illnesses, sadly. Nor does refusing to acknowledge or permit people to take up a sick role, or imposing benefit conditionality and coercive policies to push chronically ill people into work by callous, insensitive and inept and often medically unqualified assessors, job advisors and ministers.  

The Reform think tank has also recently proposed scrapping what is left of the disability benefit support system, in their report Working welfare: a radically new approach to sickness and disability benefits and has called for the government to set a single rate for all out of work benefits and reform the way sick and disabled people are assessed.  

The Reform think tank proposes that the government should cut the weekly support paid to 1.3 million sick and disabled people in the ESA Support Group from £131 to £73. This is the same amount that Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants receive. It is claimed that the cut will  somehow “incentivise” those people to find work, as if they simply lack motivation, rather than being ill and disabled. However, those people placed in the Support Group after assessment have been deemed by the state as unlikely to be able to work again in the near future, many won’t be able to work again. It would therefore be very difficult to justify this proposed cut, given the additional needs that disabled people have, which is historically recognised, and empirically verified by research. 

Yet the authors of the report doggedly insist that having a higher rate of weekly benefit for extremely sick and disabled people encourages them “to stay on sickness benefits rather than move into work.” People on sickness benefits don’t move into work because they are sick. Forcing them to work is outrageous. 

The report recommended savings which result from removing the disability-related additions to the standard allowance should be reinvested in support services and extra costs benefits – PIP. However, as outlined, the government have ensured that eligibility for that support is rapidly contracting, with the ever-shrinking political and economic re-interpretation of medically defined sickness and disability categories and a significant reduction in what the government deem to be a legitimate exemption from being “incentivised” into hard work.

The current United Nations investigation into the systematic and gross violations of the rights of disabled people in the UK because of the Conservative welfare “reforms” is a clear indication that there is no longer any political commitment to supporting disabled people in this country, with the Independent Living Fund being scrapped by this government, ESA for the work related activity group (WRAG) cut back, PIP is becoming increasingly very difficult to access, and now there are threats to the ESA Support Group. The Conservative’s actions have led to breaches in the CONVENTION on the RIGHTS of PERSONS with DISABILITIES – CRPD articles 4, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, and especially 19, 20, 27 and 29 (at the very least.)

There are also probable violations of articles 22, 23, 25, 30, 31.

The investigation began before the latest round of cuts to ESA were announced. That tells us that the government is unconcerned their draconian policies violate the human rights of sick and disabled people.

And that, surely, tells us all we need to know about this government’s intentions.

Coercing those deemed to ill to work into work. It’s not “nudge”: it’s psycho-compulsion

The casual discussion in the green paper about new mandatory “health and work conversations” in which work coaches will use “specially designed techniques” to “help” some ESA claimants “identify their health and work goals, draw out their strengths, make realistic plans, and build resilience and motivation” is also cause for some concern. 

Apparently these conversations were “co-designed with disabled people’s organisations and occupational health professionals and practitioners and the Behavioural Insights Teamthe controversial Nudge Unit, which is part-owned by the Cabinet Office and Nesta.

Most people who read my work regularly will know by now that I am one of the staunchest critics of nudge, which is being used as an antidemocratic, technocratic, pseudoscientific political tool to provide a prop and disguise for controversial neoliberal policies. It’s very evident that “disabled people’s organisations” were not major contributors to the design. It’s especially telling that those people to be targeted by this “intervention” were completely excluded from the conversation. Sick and disabled people are reduced to objects of public policy, rather than being seen as citizens and democratic subjects capable of rational dialogue.  

John Pring at Disability News Service (DNS) adds: “Grassroots disabled people’s organisations (DPOs) have criticised the government’s decision to exclude them from an event held to launch its new work, health and disability green paper. 

The event for “stakeholders” was hosted by the disability charity Scope at its London headquarters, and attended by Penny Mordaunt, the minister for disabled people.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said in its invitation – it turned down a request from Disability News Service to attend – that the event would “start the consultation period” on its green paper, Improving Lives. 

It said that it was “launching a new conversation with disabled people and people with health conditions, their representatives, healthcare professionals and employers”.  

But DWP has refused to say how many disabled people’s user-led organisations were invited to the event, and instead suggested that DNS submit a freedom of information request to find out.
But DNS has confirmed that some of the most prominent user-led organisations with the strongest links to disabled people were not invited to the launch, including Shaping Our Lives, Inclusion London, Equal Lives, People First (Self Advocacy) and Disabled People Against Cuts.” 

For further discussion of the policy context leading up to the green paper, see The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work from October 2015. 

Also see G4S are employing Cognitive Behavioural Therapists to deliver “get to work therapy” and Stephen Crabb’s obscurantist approach to cuts in disabled people’s support and also Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records from earlier this year.

The dismal and incoherent contents of the green paper were entirely predictable.

The Conservatives claim work is a “health” outcome: crude behaviourism

A Department for Work and Pensions research document published back in 2011 – Routes onto Employment and Support Allowance – said that if people believed that work was good for them, they were less likely to claim or stay on disability benefits.

It was then decided that people should be “encouraged” to believe that work was “good” for health. There is no empirical basis for the belief, and the purpose of encouraging it is simply to cut the numbers of disabled people claiming ESA by “encouraging” them into work. Some people’s work is undoubtedly a source of wellbeing and provides a sense of purpose. That is not the same thing as being “good for health”. For a government to use data regarding opinion rather than empirical evidence to claim that work is “good” for health indicates a ruthless mercenary approach to a broader aim of dismantling social security.

From the document: “The belief that work improves health also positively influenced work entry rates; as such, encouraging people in this belief may also play a role in promoting return to work.”

The aim of the research was to “examine the characteristics of ESA claimants and to explore their employment trajectories over a period of approximately 18 months in order to provide information about the flow of claimants onto and off ESA.”

The document also says: “Work entry rates were highest among claimants whose claim was closed or withdrawn suggesting that recovery from short-term health conditions is a key trigger to moving into employment among this group.”

“The highest employment entry rates were among people flowing onto ESA from non-manual occupations. In comparison, only nine per cent of people from non-work backgrounds who were allowed ESA had returned to work by the time of the follow-up survey. People least likely to have moved into employment were from non-work backgrounds with a fragmented longer-term work history. Avoiding long-term unemployment and inactivity, especially among younger age groups, should, therefore, be a policy priority. ” 

“Given the importance of health status in influencing a return to work, measures to facilitate access to treatment, and prevent deterioration in health and the development of secondary conditions are likely to improve return to work rates”

Rather than make a link between manual work, lack of reasonable adjustments in the work place and the impact this may have on longer term ill health, the government chose instead to promote the cost-cutting irrational belief that work is a “health” outcome. Furthermore, the research does conclude that health status itself is the greatest determinant in whether or not people return to work. That means that those not in work are not recovered and have longer term health problems that tend not to get better.

Work does not “cure” ill health. To mislead people in such a way is not only atrocious political expediency, it’s actually downright dangerous.

As neoliberals, the Conservatives see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined economic outcomes are stigmatised and outgrouped.

Othering and outgrouping have become common political practices, it seems.

Stigma is a political and cultural attack on people’s identities. It’s used to discredit, and as justification for excluding some groups from economic and political consideration, refusing them full democratic citizenship.

Stigma is being used politically to justify the systematic withdrawal of support and public services for the poorest – the casualties of a system founded on competition for allegedly scarce wealth and resources. Competition inevitably means there are winners and losers. Stigma is profoundly oppressive.

It is used as a propaganda mechanism to draw the public into collaboration with the state, to justify punitive and discriminatory policies and to align citizen “interests” with rigid neoliberal outcomes. Inclusion, human rights, equality and democracy are not compatible with neoliberalism.

Earlier this year, I said: The Conservatives have come dangerously close to redefining unemployment as a psychological disorder, and employment is being redefined as a “health outcome.” The government’s Work and Health programme involves a plan to integrate health and employment services, aligning the outcome frameworks of health services, Improving Access To Psychological Therapies (IAPT), Jobcentre Plus and the Work Programme.

But the government’s aim to prompt public services to “speak with one voice” is founded on questionable ethics. This proposed multi-agency approach is reductive, rather than being about formulating expansive, coherent, comprehensive and importantly, responsive provision.

This is psychopolitics, not therapy. It’s all about (re)defining the experience and reality of a social group to justify dismantling public services (especially welfare), and that is form of gaslighting intended to extend oppressive political control and micromanagement. In linking receipt of welfare with health services and “state therapy,” with the single intended outcome explicitly expressed as employment, the government is purposefully conflating citizen’s widely varied needs with economic outcomes and diktats, isolating people from traditionally non-partisan networks of relatively unconditional support, such as the health service, social services, community services and mental health services.

Public services “speaking with one voice” will invariably make accessing support conditional, and further isolate already marginalised social groups. It will damage trust between people needing support and professionals who are meant to deliver essential public services, rather than simply extending government dogma, prejudices and discrimination.

Conservatives really seem to believe that the only indication of a person’s functional capacity, value and potential is their economic productivity, and the only indication of their moral worth is their capability and degree of willingness to work. But unsatisfactory employment – low-paid, insecure and unfulfiling work – can result in a decline in health and wellbeing, indicating that poverty and growing inequality, rather than unemployment, increases the risk of experiencing poor mental and physical health. People are experiencing poverty both in work and out of work.

Moreover, in countries with an adequate social safety net, poor employment (low pay, short-term contracts), rather than unemployment, has the biggest detrimental impact on mental health. 

There is ample medical evidence (rather than the current raft of political dogma) to support this account. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example. The understanding that food deprivation in particular dramatically alters cognitive capacity, emotions, motivation, personality, and that malnutrition directly and predictably affects the mind as well as the body is one of the legacies of the experiment.)

Systematically reducing social security, and increasing conditionality, particularly in the form of punitive benefit sanctions, doesn’t “incentivise” people to look for work. It simply means that people can no longer meet their basic physiological needs, as benefits are calculated to cover only the costs of food, fuel and shelter.

Food deprivation is closely correlated with both physical and mental health deterioration. Maslow explained very well that if we cannot meet basic physical needs, we are highly unlikely to be able to meet higher level psychosocial needs. The government proposal that welfare sanctions will somehow “incentivise” people to look for work is pseudopsychology at its very worst and most dangerous.

In the UK, the government’s welfare “reforms” have further reduced social security support, originally calculated to meet only basic physiological needs, which has had an adverse impact on people who rely on what was once a social safety net. Poverty is linked with negative health outcomes, but it doesn’t follow that employment will alleviate poverty sufficiently to improve health outcomes.

In fact record numbers of working families are now in poverty, with two-thirds of people who found work in 2014 taking jobs for less than the living wage, according to the annual report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation a year ago.

Essential supportive provision is being reduced by conditionally; by linking it to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – and this will reduce every service to nothing more than a political semaphore and service provision to a behaviour modification programme based on punishment, with a range of professionals being politically co-opted as state enforcers.

The Government is intending to “signpost the importance of employment as a health outcome in mandates, outcomes frameworks, and interactions with Clinical Commissioning Groups.”

I have pointed out previously that there has never been any research that demonstrates unemployment is a direct cause of ill health or that employment directly improves health, and the existing studies support the the idea that the assumed causality between unemployment and health may actually run in the opposite direction. It’s much more likely that inadequate social security support means that people cannot meet all of  their basic survival needs (food, fuel and shelter), and that contributes significantly to poor health outcomes.

It’s not that unemployment is causing higher ill health, but that ill health and discrimination are causing higher unemployment. If it were unemployment causing ill health, at a time when the government assures us that employment rates are currently “the highest on record,” why are more people becoming sick?

The answer is that inequality and poverty have increased, and these social conditions, created by government policies, have long been established by research as having a correlational relationship with increasing mental and physical health inequalities. 

For an excellent, clearly written and focused development of these points, the problem of “hidden” variables and political misinterpretation, see Jonathan Hulme’s Work won’t set us free.

Semantic thrifts: being Conservative with the truth

Prior to 2010, cutting support for sick and disabled people was unthinkable, but the “re-framing” strategy and media stigmatising campaigns have been used by the Conservatives to systematically cut welfare, push the public’s normative boundaries and to formulate moralistic justification narratives for their draconian policies. Those narratives betray the Conservative’s intentions.

Not enough people have questioned what it is that Conservatives actually mean when they use words like “help”, “support”, and “reform” in the context of government policies aimed at disabled people. Nor have they wondered where the evidence of “help” and “support” is hiding. If you sit on the surface of Conservative rhetoric and the repetitive buzzwords, it all sounds quite reasonable, though a little glib.

If you scrutinise a little, however, you soon begin to realise with horror that Orwellian-styled techniques of neutralisation are being deployed to lull you into a false sense of security: the ideologically directed intentions behind the policies and the outcomes and consequences are being hidden or “neutralised” by purposefully deceptive, misdirectional political rhetoric. It’s a kind of glittering generalities tokenism ; a superficial PR ritual of duplicitous linguistic detoxification, to obscure deeply held traditional Conservative prejudices and ill intent.

Rhetoric requires the existence of an audience and an intent or goal in the communication. Once you stand back a little, you may recognise the big glaring discrepancies between Conservative chatter, policies, socioeconomic reality and people’s lived experiences. At the very least, you begin to wonder when the conventional ideological interests of the Conservatives suddenly became so apparently rhetorically progressive, whilst their policies have actually become increasingly authoritarian, especially those directed at the most disadvantaged social groups.

The ministerial foreword from Damian Green, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health, is full of concern that despite the claim that “we have seen hundreds of thousands more disabled people in work in recent years”, there are simply too many sick and disabled people claiming ESA.

They say: We must highlight, confront and challenge the attitudes, prejudices and misunderstandings that, after many years, have become engrained in many of the policies and minds of employers, within the welfare state, across the health service and in wider society. Change will come, not by tinkering at the margins, but through real, innovative action. This Green Paper marks the start of that action and a far-reaching national debate, asking: ‘What will it take to transform the employment prospects of disabled people and people with long-term health conditions?’

I think mention of the “engrained attitudes, prejudices and misunderstandings within the welfare state and across the health service” is the real clue here about intent. What would have been a far more authentic and reassuring comment is “we have met with disabled people who have long-term health conditions and asked them if they feel they can work, and what they need to support them if they can.”

Instead, what we are being told via subtext is that we are wrong as a society to support people who are seriously ill and disabled by providing civilised health and social care, social security and exempting them from work because they are ill or injured.

Ministers say:Making progress on the government’s manifesto ambition to halve the disability employment gap is central to our social reform agenda by building a country and economy that works for everyone, whether or not they have a long-term health condition or disability. It is fundamental to creating a society based on fairness [..] It will also support our health and economic policy objectives by contributing to the government’s full employment ambitions, enabling employers to access a wider pool of talent and skills, and improving health.”

I think that should read: “By building a country where everyone works for the [politically defined] economy.”

There’s patronising discussion of how disabled people should be “allowed to fulfil their potential”, and that those mythic meritocratic principles of talent determination and aspiration should be “what counts”, rather than sickness and disability. There are some pretty gaping holes in the logic being presented here. It is assumed that prejudice is the reason why sick and disabled people don’t work.

But it’s true that many of us cannot work because we are too ill, and the green paper fails to acknowledge this fundamental issue.

Instead “inequality” has been redefined strictly in terms of someone’s employment status, rather than as an unequal social distribution of wealth, resources, power and opportunities. All of the responsibility and burden of social exclusion and unemployment is placed on sick and disabled people, whilst it is proposed that businesses are financially rewarded for employing us.

Furthermore, it’s a little difficult to take all the loose talk seriously about the “injustice” of ill people not being in work, or about meritocratic principles and equal opportunities, when it’s not so long ago that more than one Conservative minister expressed the view that disabled people should work for less than the minimum wage. This government have made a virtue out of claiming they are giving something by taking something away. For example, the welfare cuts have been casually re-named reforms in Orwellian style. We have yet to see how cutting the lifeline benefits of the poorest people, and imposing harsh sanctioning can possibly be an improvement for them, or how it is helping them.

The Conservatives are neoliberal fundamentalists, and they have supplanted collective, public values with individualistic, private values of market rationality. They have successfully displaced established models of welfare provision and state regulation through policies of privatisation and de-regulation and have shifted public focus, instigating various changes in subjectivity, by normalising individualistic self-interest, entrepreneurial values, and crass consumerism. And increasing the social and material exclusion of growing numbers living in absolute poverty.

Basically, the Tories tell lies to change perceptions, divert attention from the growing wealth inequality manufactured by their own policies, by creating scapegoats.

Another major assumption throughout the paper is that disabled people claiming ESA are somehow mistaken in assuming they cannot work: “how can we improve a welfare system that leaves 1.5 million people – over 60% of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance – with the impression they cannot work and without any regular access to employment support, even when many others with the same conditions are flourishing in the labour market? How can we build a system where the financial support received does not negatively impact access to support to find a job? How can we offer a better user experience, improve system efficiency in sharing data, and achieve closer alignment of assessments?”

The government’s brand of armchair pseudo-psychology, propped up by the Nudge Unit, is used to justify increasingly irrational requirements being embedded in policy. The government intend to merge health and employment services, redefining work as aclinical health outcome. According to the government, the “cure” for unemployment due to illness and disability and sickness absence from work, is… work.

The new work and health programme, “support” for disabled people, is actually just another workfare programme. We know that workfare tends to decrease the likelihood of people finding work.

Work is the only politically prescribed “route out of poverty” for disabled people, including those with mental distress and illness, regardless of whether or not they are actually well enough to work. In fact the government implicitly equates mental health with economic productivity. Work will set us free. Yet paradoxically, disabled people haven’t been and won’t be included in the same economic system which is responsible for their exclusion in the first place.

Competitive market economies exclude marginalised groups, that’s something we ought to have learned from the industrial capitalism of the last couple of centuries. GPs inform us that employers are not prepared to make the necessary inclusive workplace adjustments sick and disabled people often need to work.

But in a dystopic Orwellian world where medical sick notes have been  politically redefined as ”fit notes”, sick and disabled people are no longer exempt from work, which is now held to be a magic “cure”. People are already being punished and coerced into taking any available job, regardless of its appropriateness, in an increasingly competitive and exclusive labor market.

The nitty gritty

You know the government are riding the fabled rubber bicycle when they calmly propose coercing the most disabled and ill citizens who are deemed unlikely to work by their doctors and the state (via the Work Capability Assessment) into performing mandatory work-related activities and finding jobs. Previously, only those assessed as possibly capable of some work in the future and placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) were expected to meet behavioural conditionality in return for their lifeline support.

However, the government have cut the WRAG component of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) – another somewhat Orwellian name for a sickness and disability benefit – so that this group of people, previously considered to have additional needs because of their illness and disability, are no longer supported to meet the extra costs they face. The ESA WRAG rate of pay is now to be the same as Job Seeker’s Allowance.

If the government make work related activity mandatory for those people in the ESA Support Group, it will mean that very sick and disabled people will be sanctioned for being unable to comply and meet conditionality. This entails the loss of their lifeline support. The government have the cheek to claim that they will “protect and support” the most vulnerable citizens.

Hello, these ARE among our most vulnerable citizens. That’s why they were placed in the ESA support group in the first place.

Apparently, sick citizens are costing too much money. Our NHS is “overburdened” with ill people needing healthcare, our public services are “burdened” with people needing… public services. It is claimed that people are costing employers by taking time off work when they are ill. How very dare they.

Neoliberals argue that public services present moral hazards and perverse incentives. Providing lifeline support to meet basic survival requirements is seen as a barrier to the effort people put into searching for jobs. From this perspective, the social security system, which supports the inevitable casualties of neoliberal free markets, has somehow created those casualties. But we know that external, market competition-driven policies create a few “haves” and many “have-nots.” This is why the  welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, we must also concede that there are always ”winners and losers.”

Neoliberal economies organise societies into hierarchies.The UK currently ranks highly among the most unequal countries in the world.

Inequality and poverty are central features of neoliberalism and the causes of these sociopolitical problems therefore cannot be located within individuals.

The ESA Support Group includes people who are terminally ill, and those with degenerative illnesses, as well as serious mental health problems. It’s suggested that treating this group of people with computer based Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (cCBT), and addressing obesity, alcohol and drug dependence will “help” them into work.

Ministers claim that this group merely have a “perception” that they can’t work, and that they have been “parked” on benefits. It is also implied that illness arises mostly because of lifestyle choices.

Proposals include a punitive approach to sick and disabled people needing support, whilst advocating financial rewards for employers and businesses who employ sick and disabled people.

And apparently qualified doctors, the public and our entire health and welfare systems have ingrained “wrong” ideas about sickness and disability, especially doctors, who the government feels should not be responsible for issuing the Conservatives recent Orwellian “fit notes” any more, since they haven’t “worked” as intended and made every single citizen economically productive from their sick beds.

So, a new “independent” assessment and private company will most likely soon have a lucrative role to get the government “the right results”.

Meanwhile health and social care is going to be linked with one main outcome: work. People too ill to work will be healthier if they… work. Our public services will cease to provide public services: health and social care professionals will simply become co-opted authoritarian ideologues.

Apparently, the new inequality and social injustice have nothing to do with an unequal distribution of wealth, resources, power and opportunities. Apparently our society is unequal only because some people “won’t” work. I’m just wondering about all those working poor people currently queuing up at the food bank, maybe their poorly paid, insecure employment and zero hour contracts don’t count as working.

I’ve written as I read this Orwellian masterpiece of thinly disguised contempt and prejudice. I don’t think I have ever read anything as utterly dangerous and irrational in all my time analysing Conservative public policy and the potential and actual consequences of them. These utterly deluded and sneering authors are governing our country, shaping our life experiences, and those of our children.

The sick role and any recovery time from illness or accident that you may need has been abolished. Work will cure you.

Well, at least until you die.
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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

The closing date for the consultation is 17 February 2017.
You can download the full consultation document from this link.
You can take part in the consultation from this link.



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Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform, cult thinking and neoliberalism

behavchange
Dr Robert J. Lifton is a psychologist who studied and identified the techniques of mass persuasion and groupthink used in propaganda and in cults (from political to religious). I found his interesting article about the eight criteria for “thought reform” on the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) site.

What struck me immediately about Lifton’s criteria is how easily they may be applied to neoliberalism – a totalising, authoritarian New Right ideology, imposed by an elite of very financially secure and powerful oppressors. Over the last few years, much of the rest of the population in the UK have experienced growing inequality and increasingly precarious socioeconomic circumstances, exacerbated by class-contingent neoliberal austerity and “small state” policies.

The neoliberal approach to public policy has become naturalised. Political theorist Francis Fukuyama, announced in 1992 that the great ideological battles between “east and west” were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed. He was dubbed the “court philosopher of [post-industrial] global capitalism” by John Gray.

In his book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama wrote:

“At the end of history, it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society…..What we are witnessing, is not just the end of the cold war, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

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

He meant the same sort of self-interested “freedom” as Ayn Rand: “a free mind and a free market are corollaries.” He meant the same kind of implicit social Darwinist notions long held by Conservatives like Herbert Spencer – where the conditions of the market rather than evolution decides who is “free,” who survives, and as we know, the market is rigged by the invisible hand of government.

Fukuyama’s ideas have been absorbed culturally, and serve to normalise the dominance of the right, and stifle the rationale for critical debate.

Fukuyama’s work is a celebration of neoliberal hegemony. It’s an important work to discuss simply because it has been so widely and tacitly accepted, and because of that, some of the implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions and ramifications need to be made explicit. 

Neoliberalism requires an authoritarian approach to public administration. Rather than an elected government recognising and meeting public needs, instead, we now have a government manipulating citizens to adapt their views, behaviours and circumstances to meet the politically defined needs of the state. This turns democracy on its head. It is also presents us with a political framework that is incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations and equality legislation. 

Government policies have become increasingly irrational.  We have a government that has decided work is a health outcome, for example. In an absurd world where medical sick notes have been politically redefined as fit notes, sick and disabled people are apparently no longer exempt from work, which is now held to be a magic “cure”. The only way out of the politically imposed punitive and increasing poverty for those who cannot work is… to work. (See: Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records.) 

Neoliberalism has become a doxa in the Western world. Here in the UK, citizen behaviours are being aligned with politically defined neoliberal outcomes, via policies that extend behaviour modification techniques, based on methodological behaviourism. Policies that “incentivise” have become the norm. This is a psychocratic approach to administration: the government are delivering public policies that have an expressed design and aim to act upon individuals, with an implicit set of instructions that inform citizens how they should be

Aversives and punishment protocols are most commonly used. Coercive welfare policies are one example of this. The recent eugenics by stealth policy entailing the restricting of welfare support to two children only is another. Both were introduced with the explicitly stated political intention of “changing behaviours” of poorer citizens. Those that cannot or will not conform are politically stigmatised and outgrouped, as well as being being further “disciplined” by state-imposed economic sanctions.

Another particularly successful way of neutralising opposition to an ideology is to ensure that only those ideas that are consistent with that ideology saturate the media and are presented as orthodoxy. Every Conservative campaign has been a thoroughly dispiriting and ruthless masterclass in media control.

Communication in the media is geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus. This ultimately serves to reduce democratic choices. Such tactics are nothing less than a political micro-management of your beliefs and are ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions and maintaining a profoundly unbalanced, pathological status quo. (See also: Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberalism.)

As a frame of analysis, Lifton’s criteria are very useful in highlighting parallels between cult thinking and how political dogma may gain an illusion of consensus; how it becomes a dominant paradigm and is accepted as everyday “common sense.” 

Kitty.

Lifton’s criteria for “thought reform” are:

  1. Milieu Control.  This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

  2. Mystical Manipulation.  There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes. (This can include “natural order” ideas and political doxa.) 
  3. Demand for Purity.  The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.  The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here. (Stigma and political outgrouping is used to deter and exile non-conformists.)
  4. Confession.  Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.  There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders. (Mainstream media have bombarded us with “confessions” of “scroungers”, for example. The lives and experiences of those out of work have become public moral “property.”)
  5. Sacred Science.  The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.  Truth is not to be found outside the group.  The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism. (Ties in with Conservative notions of a “natural social order”)
  6. Loading the Language.  The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.  This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking. (See Glittering Generalities and The Conservatives are colonising progressive rhetoric.)
  7. Doctrine over person.  Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. 
  8. Dispensing of existence.  The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.  This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology.  If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the  members.  Thus, the outside world loses all credibility.  In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.  (Lifton, 1989)

*Italics in blue added by me.

Related

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

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

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

 

Link: The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour changegcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1


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

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