On the 20th June, barely six weeks after the surprise Conservative victory in the general election, I pushed my wife in her wheelchair with 250,000 others as we marched from the Bank of England to the Houses of Parliament in protest against the new government’s austerity measures[i]. Four days later a group of disabled people interrupted Prime Minister’s Questions, and occupied the central lobby of the Palace of Westminster before delivering a letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons [ii]. They were protesting against government plans to end the Independent Living Fund on 30th June.
This has provided essential support to enable the disabled to live with dignity in the community. Two days later another group of protestors occupied Streatham Job Centre in South London, in protest against a scheme that frames unemployment as a psychological disorder [iii] [iv]. This pilot, which the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) intends to roll out across the country, involves ‘psychological’ assessments, online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and other forms of ‘therapy’ to force unemployed people with common mental health problems back to work. A team of mental health professionals responsible for IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) have been relocated to the job centre to help staff ‘assess’ and ‘treat’ claimants.
Many of us in the U.K. are mad – mad with anger at the injustice and cynicism of a political system that is turning the gap between rich and poor into an unbridgeable chasm. Mad with anger because the most vulnerable in society are now paying the price for a political ideology – neoliberalism – with their lives. We are mad and angry because they are blamed for failings that are not of their making, but which originate in the system under which we live.
The campaigning group Black Triangle publish a list of deaths related to UK welfare reforms. Up to October 2014 69 such deaths were recorded; most were suicides[v]. Another group, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) published a list of 22 suicides or attempted suicides by disabled people related to the detested Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Introduced in 2011 the WCA moved hundreds of thousands of people (most with mental health problems) off incapacity benefit onto Job Seeker’s Allowance or training programmes.
The DWP undertook a secret internal investigation into deaths and suicides of people on benefits, but has so far refused to make this public [vi]. A freedom of information request to DWP by independent journalist and blogger Natalie Leal has revealed that nearly half of 49 of these deaths were people on Employment and Support Allowance. This means they had illness or disabilities [vii].
Suicides and other deaths are the tragic tip of an iceberg of misery and suffering experienced by people forced to rely on benefits either because there are no suitable jobs available, or because they are unfit for work. The government is exercising an increasingly punitive and authoritarian regime against people on benefits. Vulnerable people with disabilities, physical and mental health problems are left destitute by sanctions that suspend or end their benefits if they fail to comply with orders to attend ‘training courses’ or keep a job seeker’s diary.
The Manchester Citizens’ Advice Bureau’s report on benefit sanctions involved 376 respondents from all over the UK [viii]. Claimants were forced to cut down on food and heating, borrow money from family and friends, use food banks, or scrounge for food from skips. Others were forced to beg. Sanctioning severely affected the mental and physical well being of respondents. Some had attempted suicide or contemplated it after their benefits were withheld. The report paints a picture of lives already permeated by hopelessness plunged into destitution and despair by sanctions
The recently elected Conservative government’s response has been to reinvigorate its pursuit of austerity by a further £12bn benefit cuts [ix], a 2-year freeze on benefits, and a household benefit cap of £23,000 (down from £26,000)[x]. Benefit cuts antedate the austerity measures that followed the global banking crisis of 2008, and have been enthusiastically taken up by a succession of governments extending back to Margaret Thatcher. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (a non-political organisation) found that whilst the total amount spent on disability benefits has fallen, the proportion of claimants with mental health problems has increased from around 50% to 60% from 1999 to 2014, posing ‘… an increasingly central issue for future disability policy reform.’ (p. 175).[xi] It’s not only as bad as you think it is, but it’s going to get a damn sight worse.
The Coalition Government’s austerity programme had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable people in society. The Centre for Welfare Reform[xii] found that the impact of austerity, including benefit cuts and sanctions, cuts to housing benefit, and cuts to local government fell disproportionately heavily on disabled people. The government refused to carry out a cumulative impact assessment on the effect of these changes on the lives of the disabled. A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission[xiii] found that tax and welfare reforms had had a more negative impact on families with at least one disabled person, particularly a disabled child, and especially in low-income families.
Here, I want to examine the ideology of neoliberalism which, I will argue, is largely responsible for the terrible plight of our most vulnerable citizens. Through it, inequality and injustice have become ineradicably woven into the fabric of society. I also want to describe how CBT and other forms of therapy are being recruited into job centres in an attempt to coerce even more people back to work, as part of this rampant political ideology.
What is Neoliberalism?
Most people probably believe neoliberalism has little relevance to their lives. I disagree. It has become the dominant ideology affecting every one of us through its economic impact, and through this the choices that its opens up or, more usually, closes down for us. Over the last thirty years this ideology has forced us to think and act in ways that suit its interests rather than the democratic interests and concerns of ordinary citizens.
The Anglo-US academic David Harvey defines neoliberalism as ‘…the theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.’[xiv] (pp 1-2)
This means the power of the state is cut right back and its role limited to the creation of those institutional frameworks necessary to support free markets. This includes guaranteeing market functioning, and having the necessary legal structures to secure private property rights. If appropriate markets do not exist, the state may have a role in creating them through privatisation of public utilities. In addition, neoliberal economic policy requires the deregulation of financial markets to encourage competition. The state cuts back on or withdraws altogether from welfare and social provision.
This ideology has become so pervasive, so deeply embedded in our culture, that it is now widely seen as the ‘common-sense’ way of understanding our lives and the world in which we exist. It is taken to be so self-evident that it is extremely difficult to challenge. To question it is to attract ridicule, and those who dissent from it risk marginalisation. To question the meaning of ‘reform’ or ‘progress’ is, as Owen Jones points out[xv], to risk being portrayed as being in the pay of reactionary vested interests, such as the unions or other left-wing organisations. This is indeed ironic given the vested interests served by neoliberal ideology that are never questioned or called to account.
Harvey describes the origins and modus operandi of neoliberalism, and here I will summarise those elements that are useful in understanding why so many of us are angry. These elements concern individual freedom versus collective responsibility, social justice and democracy, and the role of technology.
- Individual freedom versus collective responsibility
The notion of individual freedom (hence ‘liberal’) lies at the heart of neoliberal ideology. The policies pursued by Margaret Thatcher in UK in the 1980s exemplify neoliberalism’s prioritisation of individual freedom over collective responsibility. To confront the economic problems of the 1970s (stagflation) Thatcher slashed spending on welfare, and privatised public utilities. She also privatised social housing by allowing council (local authority) tenants to purchase their council homes. Through the bitter and divisive Miners’ Strike of 1984, she engineered a confrontation between Britain’s most powerful union (the National Union of Mineworkers) and in victory effectively dismantled union power. She also reigned in the power of local government and professional groups and their associations. These changes were epitomised by her view that ‘There is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.’[xvi] Harvey writes thus of neoliberalism: ‘All forms of social solidarity were to be dissolved in favour of individualism, private property, personal responsibility, and family values.’ (p 23). One consequence of this is the view that individual human beings stand or fall by their personal responsibility for their own decisions, actions, and choices.
If the origins of personal success or failure are to be understood solely as a property of an individual who is free to choose and act, then it follows that the consequences of his or her decisions and actions have nothing to do with the wider social and systemic contexts in which that individual is located. Those who are seen to be industrious, hard-working, or who invest financial resources in their betterment through education and qualifications, or who profit from successful investments, or who have won the national lottery, are held out as aspirational models for the rest of us. They are seen to be virtuous and deserve their success. This is how we should see ourselves. This is reflected in the popularity in Britain of the TV series Dragon’s Den, in which young entrepreneurs have an opportunity to present their business plans to a group of wealthy potential investors.
In contrast, personal failure is just that – a property of the individual. It has nothing to do with an increasingly unfair society in which the net direct effect of the Coalition government’s tax and benefit policies from 2010 to 2014 increased both absolute and relative poverty [xvii]. Instead poverty is believed to arise because the individual has the wrong attitude, a faulty set of beliefs, or a lack of ‘positive affect’. It has nothing to do with the socio-economic circumstances in which the person exists. Neither for that matter is it related to personal stories grounded in oppression, racism and abuse. This idea, that personal failings are the primary determinants of poverty, is central to neoliberal ideology. It is being used to justify the U.K. government’s recruitment of psychological therapies in its mission to force ever more people off benefits.
- Social justice and democracy
Harvey argues that there is a fundamental incompatibility between individual freedom and social justice in neoliberalism. He puts it this way: ‘Pursuit of social justice presupposes social solidarities and the willingness to submerge individual wants, needs, and desires in the cause of some more general struggle for, say, social equality or environmental justice.” (p 40) As an example he cites the New York fiscal crisis of 1975 as a key moment that established the principle that the integrity of financial institutions trumped the well-being of citizens. It meant that the role of government was to maintain an orderly society in which markets could flourish, even though this was not in the best interests of the citizens.
There is also an uneasy relationship between neoliberalism and democracy. The most persuasive argument here has can be found in Noam Chomsky’s Profit over People [xviii]. Although politicians readily resort to favourite sound-bites on the value of freedom and democracy when for some reason these appear to be under attack, the will of the majority can and does conflict with individual freedom. In Capitalism and Freedom Milton Friedman[xix], the high priest of neoliberalism (and one of Margaret Thatcher’s heroes), argued that making a profit is the essence of democracy. If you agree with this then it follows that a government that implements anti-market policies is antidemocratic. This is why neoliberal governments are intent on restricting their activities to the protection private property and the enforcement of contracts. True political debate is stifled, and limited to matters of no real consequence. This creates an apathetic and cynical electorate, which is exactly what we have in U.K. at present. Democracy becomes as an optional extra, a luxury that can be afforded as long as markets are functioning and creating affluence. Harvey describes how this gives rise to a preference for governance by experts and elites, rather than through parliament and the ballot box. Ultimately neoliberalism has to resort to authoritarianism to impose the will of the elite few over the many: ‘Faced with social movements that seek collective interventions, therefore, the neoliberal state is itself forced to intervene, sometimes repressively, thus denying the very freedoms it is supposed to uphold.’ (Harvey: p69)
- Science and technology in neoliberalism:
Science and technology play an important role in neoliberalism. Information and communication technology are essential for the efficient running of markets. However they both represent the means of production of new knowledge, processes and products, which through the compulsion of the market become fetishised. We are constantly pressurised to buy the latest gadget containing the latest technology (did I really need to upgrade my iPhone 4 to a 5?). Technological products and scientific knowledge are subject to patents and intellectual property rights in order to maximise profit. At the same time the idea that there is a scientific or technological fix for all human and social problems has become enormously popular. We no longer expect governments to fix unfair societies. Instead we expect experts to rectify malfunctioning individuals. Even here there are destabilising influences. Technological advances take place so rapidly that they outstrip the ability of markets to keep up with them. Pharma constantly reinvents old drugs for new, made up, illnesses [xx]. The grotesque debasement of scientific medicine described so powerfully in Robert Whitaker and Lisa Cosgrove’s recent book [xxi] could only have arisen in societies that value markets and profit over scientific rigour, accountability, transparency and honesty.
Neoliberalism and Authoritarianism
In the U.K. the new government’s benefits reductions are taking an authoritarian turn. We have already seen that despite superficially embracing democracy, neoliberal governments rapidly become authoritarian when they sense resistance, especially if this interferes with markets, or involves spending more money on welfare. We have seen too that one consequence of authoritarianism is benefit sanctions, but this is now assuming a more disturbing form.
Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn[xxii] have examined in detail how psychology, clinical psychology and therapy have become incorporated into government action directed against disabled people on benefits. A range of psychological ‘assessments’ and ‘interventions’ threaten to control the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens with disabilities and health problems. This occurs through conditionality (i.e. sanctions)and workfare, i.e. being forced to work ‘voluntarily’ for private sector firms or social enterprises in order to be eligible to receive benefits. But worst of all is the use of political psychocompulsion and positive affect.
Friedli and Stearn use the term psychocompulsion, but as this is primarily a political act, the use of the qualifying adjective ‘political’ is justifiable. It takes the form of the imposition of psychological explanations for an individual’s unemployment. The assessments and interventions that are being piloted in Streatham Job Centre are predicated upon the assumption that unemployment originates in ‘faulty beliefs’ about the reasons the person is unemployed, and that these beliefs result in faulty attitudes and behaviours, especially so-called benefit dependency. This fits with the value attached to personal choice and agency in neoliberal ideology. Consequently unemployed people end up on benefits long-term, and resist seeking paid employment. This ‘theory’ gives rise to a variety of assessments aimed at identifying the faulty beliefs and practices in order to ‘rectify’ them through ‘therapy’ aimed at modifying these beliefs as well as the person’s attitude and personality. Psychologists and therapists are recruited into ‘…monitoring, modifying and punishing people who claim social security benefits or research into the impact of mandatory positive affect on an expanding range of ‘unproductive’ or failing citizens: those who are out of work, not working enough, not earning enough and/or failing to seek work with sufficient application’. [Friedli and Stearn, 42]
Political psychocompulsion and workfare draw heavily on the strengths-based literature of positive psychology, especially notions of confidence, optimism and self-efficacy. The ‘science’ of positive psychology has unconscionably baleful origins. It can be traced back to the 1960s work of the American psychologist Seligman on learned helplessness. He gave repeated electric shocks to caged dogs in one of two experimental conditions. In the first there was a lever in the cage which if pressed by the dog prevented the shock. The dogs very quickly learnt to press the lever and avoid the shock. In the second there was no lever and there was nothing the animals could do to avoid the shock. Very quickly these animals became stressed out, anxious and withdrawn. In other words they appeared chronically depressed.
Positive affect has in recent years become a key element in government action to manage people with complex problems. One way of understanding these developments is that they represent attempts by the state to govern and manage disabled subjectivities, so that ‘… liberal subjects’ capabilities, inclinations and desires are in accord with values and expectations that are identified as already given by a civil society centred on the labour market.’ (Friedli & Stearn: 42)
In reality the implementation of these approaches is trite and shallow in the extreme, and would be risible were they not so humiliating and degrading for those forced to endure them. Izzy Koksal, an activist and blogger, has written about her experiences of courses based on positive affect[xxiii], which were ‘…simply one long motivational talk with very little actual real content…[we were told that] if we believed we could get a job then it would happen. It was simply our mindset that was the barrier…’ She goes on to describe how claimants were told repeatedly the reason they were unemployed was because of self-created barriers.
Positive affect and cognitive therapy focus on ‘deficits’ that are supposed to be a property of the individual; they thus deny the reality of experiences of distress whose origins are to be found in the deeply inequitable and oppressive conditions found society. This is utterly deceitful and beggars belief. We know that there are very close links between income inequality and a wide range of complex problems – reduced life expectancy, poor mental and physical health, suicide rates, and family dysfunction [xxiv] [xxv]. This raises important ethical and moral questions. There can be no moral justification for trying to force people to believe that things aren’t really as bad as they believe them to be, and that things really can be better for them, if only they change their ‘mind-set’. Even more so when the real agenda is to reduce spending on benefits as part of the ideology of neoliberalism. The reality is that people’s lives are tragic, blighted by misery, suffering and oppression. The Streatham pilot scheme, and the plans that follow on from this are an abuse of therapy that lets government off the hook in two ways. First it can claim that it is taking positive action to help get people off benefits and back to work (probably on zero-hours contracts). Second the action it takes blames the unemployed and disabled, not the conditions created by neoliberalism.
This is a direct consequence of the government’s will to impose this ideology on us all. The disabled, people with physical and mental health problems are in a war of attrition. They are slowly being ground down by austerity. People struggle to make ends meet; they try their best to live, not extravagantly but with self-respect and decency, but instead they are demeaned, blamed, pathologised, and driven into the arms of mental health professionals in job centres. It is important to remember that this agenda is driven by government, not psychiatrists or psychologists.
As a result lives are being lived in fear of the rattle of the letterbox and the fluttering buff envelope that crashes as a hammer blow on the floor. Voices shriek abuse at voice hearers: ‘Dole scum!’, ‘Life unworthy of life!’, ‘Parasite!’ repeating the stigmatising and abusive rhetoric that fills the popular press, and media poverty porn like Benefit Street [xxvi]. What prospects can there be for recovery (whatever that is) when the world despises and humiliates you? Yes indeed, they really are out to get you, and it is as bad as you think.
Whilst I alone am responsible for the views expressed in this blog, I am grateful to a number of colleagues whose lives and experiences have shaped my thinking in recent times. I am especially grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in discussions on the Recovery in the Bin Face Book group, and to my K9 colleague.
[i] http://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2015/jun/20/anti-austerity-demonstrations-live accessed on 28th June 2015
[ii] http://dpac.uk.net/2015/06/the-letter-disabled-people-stormed-parliament-to-deliver/ accessed on 28th June 2015
[iii] http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jun/26/mental-health-protest-clinic-jobcentre-streatham accessed on 28th June 2015
[iv] https://www.madinamerica.com/2015/06/protesters-march-on-job-center-over-forced-mental-health-therapy/ accessed 29th June 2015
[v] http://blacktrianglecampaign.org/2014/10/21/uk-welfare-reform-deaths-updated-list-october-21st-2014/ accessed on 22nd June 2015
[vi] http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/dec/14/dwp-inquiries-benefit-claimant-suicides accessed on 28th June 2015
[vii] http://natalieleal.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/dwp-secret-reviews-into-benefit-deaths.html accessed on 28th June 2015
[viii] Manchester CAB (2013)
A review of benefits sanctions and their impacts
on clients and claimants. Accessed at http://www.manchestercab.org/news_more.asp?news_id=19 23rd June 2015
[ix] http://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/7762 Accessed on 22nd June 2015.
[x] Peter Beresford (2015) For service users who rely on benefits, the Queen’s speech brought no relief. The Guardian 28th May 2015. Accessed at http://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2015/may/28/service-users-rely-benefits-queens-speech-no-relief-social-care-nhs on 23 June.
[xi] Banks, J., Blundell , R. and Emmerson, C. (2015) Disability Benefit Receipt and Reform: Reconciling Trends in the United Kingdom. Journnal of Economic Perspectives, 29, 2, 173–190. Accessed at http://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.29.2.173 on 22nd June 2015.
[xii]http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/uploads/attachment/403/counting-the-cuts.pdf accessed 23 June 2015
[xiii]http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/publication_pdf/Cumulative%20Impact%20Assessment%20full%20report%2030-07-14.pdf accessed 23 June 2015
[xiv] Harvey, D (2005) A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford, Oxford University Press
[xv] Jones, O. (2014) The Establishment: And how they get away with it. Allen Lane, London.
[xvi] (Margaret Thatcher, Women’s Own, 31st October 1987)
[xvii] http://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/comms/r96.pdf accessed on 28th June 2015
[xviii] Chomsky, N. (1999) Profit over People: Neoliberalism and the Global Order. New York, Seven Stories Press.
[xix] Friedman, M. (1962) Capitalism and Freedom Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
[xx] Moncreiff, J. (2006) Psychiatric drug promotion and the politics of neoliberalism British Journal of Psychiatry 188 (4) 301-302; DOI: 10.1192/bjp.188.4.301
[xxi] Whitaker, R. and Cosgrove, L. (2015) Psychiatry Under the Influence: Institutional Corruption, Social Injury, and Prescriptions for Reform Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan
[xxii] Friedli, L. & Stearn, R. (2015) Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes Medical Humanities 41:40–47. doi:10.1136/medhum-2014-010622 Accessed at http://mh.bmj.com/content/41/1/40.full.pdf+html on 22nd June 2015.
[xxiii] https://izzykoksal.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/adventures-at-a4e/ accessed on 26th June 2015
[xxiv] Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K. (2009) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. London, Penguin Books.
[xxv] https://www.madinamerica.com/2012/05/on-the-importance-of-moral-imagination/ accessed 29th June 2015
[xxvi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benefits_Street accessed 29th June 2015