Follow me on Twitter

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

IDS: Ignorance, Agnotology and Gas Lighting?

It is well known that Iain Duncan Smith has a limited patience for reality.
He has faith in a calamitous policy of Universal Credit, he believes that unemployment has no structural causes and that the unemployed can be sanctioned into work. The evidence, at every turn, shows he is wrong (see Donkey passim). But evidence long since passed being relevant.

I’ve been party to conversations about IDS. I’ve spoken to high profile anti-poverty campaigners who ally an intimate grasp of his damaging policies with a surprising forbearance for his desire to be seen as a sympathetic social reformer. (Incredibly some really do see IDS as a social reformer, see this Spectator piece by Isabel Hardman).

Other people, while not necessarily ruling out his good intentions, think him a bungling idiot. Surely this was behind the media’s wrongly held belief, last year, that he was due to be sacked. In the event neither reshuffle, nor a subsequent general election left a mark on this most shambolic of ministers.

This tells us a lot about mainstream journalists and commentators, but precious little about IDS.

George Osborne, according to right wing commentator, Matthew D’Ancona, thinks IDS an intellectual lightweight, an observation that, if true, is especially interesting if added to D’Ancona’s other revelation that IDS was shocked, upon entering government, at just how jealously the Treasury guards its power over public spending (how can a politician be unaware of this?).

Still, IDS survives concurrently with a reputation as a deeply ignorant politician.

It was with this in mind that I read an interesting paper by Edinburgh University academic, Tom Slater. It enjoins us to pay closer attention to something that IDS is very good at: agnotology, or the promotion of ignorance.

And we should pay attention to Slater’s thesis. Because if we are to stand a chance of fighting the drip of poison aimed against society’s most vulnerable, then we need to confront the reality that a formally ‘liberal’ or reason-based politics has long since ceased to operate in this country. We need to confront the fact of a deliberate campaign of ignorance-inducing propaganda, honed by neoliberalism during countless skirmishes against practical reason (think climate change denial, big tobacco, Greece or austerity more generally).

It’s a thesis (unwittingly?) echoed by Adam Curtis, whose last documentary tackled a similar project of political ignorance, but this time at the level of culture.

Agnotology is the process of sowing doubt with the aim of keeping people sufficiently unsure about reality, such that they are dissuaded from acting to change it. Philip Mirowski in his book ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go To Waste’ recounts how this process ran its course in the run up to 2008 crisis and in its subsequent fallout.

Mirowski painstakingly depicts what sometimes feels like a conspiracy theory-sized account of how reasonable, rational positions (on issues as varied as climate change, tax and macro economics) were systematically undermined with the sole aim of preventing change contra to the interests of the wealthy.  A further collection of articles on this burgeoning area of academic inquiry is contained in the book ‘Agnotology: the making and unmaking of ignorance,’ including research which uncovered the famous tobacco industry memo declaring ‘Ignorance is our product'.

Students of agnotology say it is qualitatively different from simple propaganda, in that it’s object is the social and cultural production of ignorance.

I’m often struck by the similarity agnotology bares to the phenomenon of ‘gas lighting’. Gas lighting is a form of psychological abuse, diagnosed by feminist thinkers, that convinces its object (usually a female spouse, but also children) to doubt their memory, perception, reality and, ultimately, their sanity (the term ‘gas lighting’ is from the 1944 film ‘Gas Light’). Feminists have noted the way abusive men routinely enact the technique through a combination of lies, deceit, rumour (and just enough truth) to keep their victimised partner or family, unsure, unbalanced, emotionally drained, isolated and thus easier to control. The technique is an acknowledged favourite of the narcissist and the psychopath, also the torturer (Read this blog for a delicious example of how a woman turned the tables on a gas lighting partner, by making him watch the film ‘Gas Light’. As an aside, the Greek film ‘Dog Tooth,’ while fictional, seems to me to come close to depicting the workaday horror of a family marked by this kind of abuse.)

For me there is something uncannily familiar about the gas lighting favoured by the domestic abuser and the deceitful propaganda about benefit scroungers, skivers and foreigners spouted by our media and political class. The ‘look over there’ smears parroted by the likes of Osborne, Farage and others in our political class. The hatred whipped up against the poor by programmes like Benefits Street.  The sense that the BBC may not have crossed the Rubicon in the public’s mind with its idea of making poor people compete against each other for the title of ‘Britain’s Best Grafter.’

In IDS’s favour, I can’t find a single example of him ever having uttered the word ‘scrounger’.  Indeed he denies ever saying it (George Osborne came close in his infamous‘shirkers versus skivers’ budget speech). But to chase around looking for a verbatim record of what IDS or Osborne did or didn’t say is to miss the point entirely, indeed it is to fall victim to the self-same mind games so beloved of the gas lighting, agnotological abuser.

Some advice

The best defence against narcissism is to run. 

Unfortunately, the poor, the disabled, the young, the sick and the unemployed cannot just up sticks to Bermuda to spend time with their offshore accounts.

The second best defence is to be prepared to count everything as a lie, to judge these people by what they do, and allow no mitigation in their endless fork tonguery. It is a sign of weakness, like blood in the water, to engage a narcissist in a discussion about reasons. Similarly it is a proper defence mechanism against the crazy-making barbs of politicians to dismiss everything they say, offhand.
Forget about the lies. Fixating on the lie is their trick, a means to an end. Insanity and anomie lie at the end of any attempt to reason with such people.

Condemning all politicians is no new thing. Indeed from the comfort of the commentariat it is a position often sneered at. Well, it may be ‘unsophisticated,’ it may be uncouth to them, but what difference should that make?

We have the right, to treat as lies, every word from the mouth of IDS and his ilk.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Foodbank report: Unjust sanctions are merely anecdotal

The food poverty report published this week drew lots of attention to the role that benefit delays and sanctions play in forcing people to rely on foodbanks.

The idea that unfair sanctions are unusual, or some kind of -one-off, is utter nonsense.

The regime of conditionality operated by this government has given rise to a scale of unfair sanctioning that is systemic in nature. So much so that the system of reconsidering sanctions has been dismantled completely broken down (see David Webster’s evidence passim). 

Unfair sanctions aren’t some rogue aberration, as the DWP has already conceded (see Donkey passim), they are systemic to the benefit system itself.

A mere glance at the proportion of sanctions that are subsequently overturned by claimants points to a huge, organised and deliberate system of injustice directed against claimants.

Apparently the report's chair, Frank Field, (himself a former Secretary of State for work and pensions) can’t join the dots between ‘anecdotal’ cases of sanctioning injustice and the overnight explosion of sanctioning since October 2012.

That he apparently sees no connection between ‘anecdotal’ evidence of unjust sanctions and a tribunal system that previously recorded a 90% success record in favour of claimants overturning sanctions beggars belief.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Interview with a Work Programme contractor.

I’ve been researching a story about social landlords involved in the Work Programme.
I wrote a news story about the experience of Bromford Support for InsideHousing hereI’m hoping to write a longer follow-up that covers the issue in more detail.
In the course of trying to speak to around 16 landlords on the programme, I learned that Bromford  pulling out of the scheme.
This was a shock. Bromford had been a high profile backer of the WP (see here, here and here). It was also criticised for its involvement in the scheme by campaign groups such as Boycott Workfare and Refuted.

I managed to speak to Bromford Support’s Managing Director, John Wade, at some length. It is clear that all is not well with housing associations involved with the policy.
Bromford along with other social landlords was never a prime contractor, landlords usually seem to be second or third tier sub-contactors to the scheme. This has implications in terms of the people who end up being referred to them.
In the course of my research it emerged that the types of barriers these people faced are commonly: homelessness, mental health issues, disability, debt etc. These are the people pushed into the Work Programme by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), then ‘parked’ by the prime WP providers because, right now, they are simply incapable of work.
‘Creaming and parking’, the use of mandatory work placements (aka workfare) and benefit sanctions were common themes in my conversations with housing association WP providers.
Anyway, below is a partial transcript of my interview with Mr Wade of Bromford, it’s worth a read.

Barriers to work
‘The big thing we realized is that most of the people referred to us were just not ready to get into a job. Generally now [Bromford continues to run a welfare to work scheme focused on its own tenants and residents, ‘Bromford Connect.’ And ‘Connect Extra’]. We are trying to identify which of our customers are not ready for work. Our focus is on those other issues, the barriers to work that exist now. At the point when we think someone has got enough control over those issues in their lives, or they feel they are in a better place, then we start to engage more around employment.’ ‘We run a six day course over six weeks with the initial aim of getting people to re-think themselves in terms of working out “am I employable?” and “how should I prepare for getting a job?”‘It’s about preparing them to play the game and understand how to get a job. It is uncanny how similar what we are doing is to the advice that is given to young people when they are first starting out. It’s about re-packaging themselves, getting them to think about how they can feel more positive about themselves and think about what they have got to offer.‘The success rate of people that go through the course is 60 per cent, the reason for that success rate is down to the fact it is focused on trying to do one thing only: to work with people who have already reached the point where they have decided they want to get back into work.‘By contrast, most of our Work Programme work was actually about addressing the pre-employment issues. We might be referred a client who was facing a debt problem, or at risk of homelessness and trying to get that sorted out. We’d end up helping them to sort the issue out, because that’s a major barrier to finding work: being homeless. But it’s not Work Programme work, it’s more like Supporting People (link) work.   
There is something wrong with the Job Centre 
‘It’s easy to take the Daily Mail view of people living on benefit: that these claimants are totally capable of work, but would rather scrounge and watch Jeremy Kyle, or whatever. But that’s not the situation of the people we were seeing, if indeed, such people exist at all.‘We were engaging and meeting with people who had been ground down by their circumstances and needed help and the overwhelming message was that they did not get that support from Job Centre Plus. Instead, their interaction with Job Centre Plus was merely confirming everything negative and bad that they felt about themselves: that they were worthless, that they were not capable of much. There is something wrong. ‘Our staff would meet regularly with people from Job Centre Plus, we worked really closely with them. When you meet them, they are the same people, decent people who seem to be genuinely motivated by wanting to help others.
‘But something is wrong with it. It’s about relationships, it’s about trust and it’s about people engaging with other people in a relationship of mutual respect and it’s about having the time to do all of those things. 
 Unpacking the lives of the long-term unemployed

 ‘When we engage with someone on our Connect scheme a lot of the focus is about getting people to put together a CV. But it’s more than that, especially for people who are long-term unemployed, for example. You ask people: “What have you been doing, what’s going on in your life?” They might not have been working, but they will have been budgeting, having to manage their time, meet deadlines and things like that. Basically they have been doing lots of things that that can be unpacked and re-packaged and be useful skills in lots of jobs.’

Friday, 8 August 2014

'Test, Learn, Implement,' the new slogan for Universal Credit

It is well worth a listen (scroll to 50 mins). The interview is part of Milligan's award-winning series of on the record lunchtime chats with politicians for Radio 4's 'PM' programme.
The light-hearted nature of the interviews reveals a lot. 

He loves Italy, the food, the country but denies he was the ‘Iain’ referred to in that infamous overheard reshuffle conversation on the Chichester to London train. But intriguingly he does know who the ‘Iain’ referred to was.
His lesson for aspiring SPads?
‘Don’t talk on bloody trains, ‘I know very well that both ends were not talking about me…’
On a sartorial level, it's not quite Dorothy Parker but:
‘Men who wear glasses on their head look silly.’
But it’s IDS’s ‘vocational’ commitment to welfare reform and how stories about poverty affect him that are really of interest in this interview. Plus a new DWP chant apparently doing the rounds at Caxton House.
‘I just know that I should be doing this…[welfare reform] I see this as a vocation… these stories about people in difficulty didn’t start the day I walked through the door. Of course those stories are sad and terrible, you want to find out about them, the speed with which you pick these up, is what you test yourself upon.
‘The reality is that the change [to Universal Credit] itself should ameliorate the problem, if you don’t change it, they’re still going to be screaming.
Universal Credit was supposed to have been rolled out in one go. Having missed the deadline, and learned lessons, the department has apparently adopted a new slogan. 
‘Our phrase is ‘test, learn, implement,’ says IDS.


Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Oakley review is out: some initial comments

Not had a chance for a detailed look through this yet, but the DWP has at last published the Oakley review into the way benefit sanctions are communicated.

The review’s terms of reference were always too tight. This was a common theme of criticism from organisations that responded to the consultation earlier this year.

But a wider ranging review of sanctioning would inevitably have called into question the policy itself and the principle of ‘conditionality’ that underlies it.

These are emphatically not up for review yet. The report’s author, Matthew Oakley, is himself committed to the current policy of sanctions (Donkey Passim)

Oakley’s report includes references to the consultation responses and the Child Poverty Action Group has a page on its website where many of the responses can be read. Most of the responses criticized the tight terms of reference.

There were rumours going around that Oakley was going to step beyond the narrow confines of his remit and he hints at this in saying that the report has implications for sanctioned claimants across the board, not just those on the work programme. But I’ll have to read it more closely.

Oakley’ review was about the way conditionality and sanctions are communicated, it was a review of the processes, in itself this is no small issue. Communication between advisors, claimants, local authorities and others who interface with the policy of conditionality and its attendant sanctions, is awful. From the dreadful job seekers agreement, the woeful ‘job seekers diary,’ which is a regular source of ‘raised doubts’ against claimants (I know of claimants who have been threatened with a sanction for failing to include a job reference in their diary). The squalid relationships that exist between claimants and their advisors to the almost willfully poor letter writing on behalf of work programme providers and the DWP itself - the system works terribly and Oakley makes some important recommendations on some of these processes.

But the truth is that an orgy of sanctioning activity is taking place in job centres right now. Since October 2012 when it upped the expectation on job centre managers that they would punish more people, sanctions have gone through the roof. No amount of ‘behavioural’ approaches to communication (as recommended by Oakley) will make a difference to a policy like this. It is the deliberate decision to ramp up sanctioning activity in October 2012 that needs sorting, not how those sanctions are ‘communicated’.

It’s worth noting that employment minister Esther McVey MP, previously committed to a wider sanctions review. That was dropped pretty quick.

The bottom line is sanctions work, they are brilliant at driving people off benefits.