Friday 12 July 2013

Infinite incompetence or Orwellian propaganda

These days it is almost cliché to express the view that "George Orwell was right". Some of the parallels between  Orwell's terrifying science-fiction dystopia 1984 and modern life in the UK are obvious. The UK has more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other country; the GCHQ Tempora mass surveillance operation is even more invasive than the American Prism operation; the education system, the media and language itself have been dumbed down to such an extent, that millions of people find themselves unable to express dissent in any other way than foul mouthed ranting or rioting in the streets; and not least, that ever more people seem to be suffering from "DoubleThink" (the propensity simultaneously believe two mutually contradictory ideas).

Some of the central themes of 1984 were the roles of deliberate disinformation and the abuse of language, summarised with the slogan "WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH".

Deliberate misinformation and the abuse of language are now commonplace in "Coalition Britain". Of course, politicians have always lied to the public (just think of Tony Blair and WMD or the Hillsborogh cover-up under the Thatcher regime), however the current government seems to be stuffed with an alarming number of pathological liars. The stream of disprovable lies emanating from Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP is absolutely shocking, and the Prime Minister himself is so brazenly dishonest that he even lies in party political broadcasts.

One could perhaps excuse David Cameron for his lies about the economy on the basis that he is too economically illiterate to realise that the carefully prepared party political broadcast speech he is reading to camera contains an egregious economic lie. One could perhaps attempt to defend Iain Duncan Smith and the other Tories like Grant Shapps, who have brazenly misused statistical evidence to construct elaborate lies about the effects of government policies, by claiming that they are perhaps statistically illiterate.

The problem with attributing to incompetence, what can be more easily explained by malice, occurs when one encounters a lie that is so barefaced, so oft repeated and so carefully orchestrated, that it is impossible to believe that it is anything other than an Orwellian "freedom is slavery" style propaganda campaign. One example of this kind of enormous and transparent lie is the Great Neoliberal Lie technique (a classic example being the MoneyWeek debt fearmongering campaign, which attributes the global economic meltdown entirely to welfare spending, without even a mention of recklessly over-leveraged and fraud riddled financial institutions). The revisionist lies about the causes of the global financial crisis would be a great example to illustrate this article, however I've already written several articles demolishing this kind of neoliberal revisionism (see previous links) so I'll use another blatant example of a Big Lie propaganda campaign.

The example I'll focus on is the "Making work pay" propaganda campaign used by the Tories to justify their welfare reforms. 

The most blatant use of the misleading "Making work pay" narrative must surely be in relation to the legislation to limit rises in all manner of benefit payments to a below inflation 1% with the 2013 Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill (the use of the word "Up-rating" to describe a programme of massive real terms cuts is a clear use of Orwellian language in itself). The Tory justification narrative for this legislation relied on the ridiculous tactic of pointing to the fact that the average wage has shrunk in real terms every single month since they came to power, and then stoking the public sense of injustice with the narrative that increases in benefits payments shouldn't match the rate of inflation, whilst the working person is suffering real terms pay cuts, because "lazy scroungers" shouldn't get more than working people.

This appeal to injustice argument is riddled with faulty reasoning. One of the most obvious problems is the fact that the Tory government themselves must surely be held accountable for the real terms pay cuts inflicted on countless millions of working people due to the failure of their barmy "cut now, think later" ideological austerity experiment. Another objection is the fact that an inflation matching 2.5% increase on the £70 odd quid a week paid to an unemployed person (£1.75 extra per week) is actually, in monetary terms, less that a 1.5% increase paid to someone earning a more or less average salary of £280 per week (£4.20 extra per week). Only in the land of absurd Tory justifications is £1.75 "more" than £4.20.

The biggest objection to the appeal to injustice argument though, is the fact that the vast majority of benefits restricted to below inflation increases by this legislation are those paid to working families. The benefits under attack include Child Benefit, Working Tax Credits, Child Tax Credits, Income Support, Housing Benefit, Maternity/Paternity Pay and Statutory Sick Pay (many of which are exclusively paid to working people).

Enforcing below inflation rises (real terms cuts) on these in-work benefits, whilst peddling the narrative that these cuts must be made in order to "Make work pay" would have been bad enough, but to cite the fact that workers are already suffering below inflation pay raises as part of their warped justification for cutting in-work benefits was just sick. Just to clear about this, the vast majority of people to suffer the adverse financial consequences of these real terms cuts in benefits payments, justified with the "Making work pay" narrative, are the working poor. Despite the claims that these cuts were necessary in order to "Make work pay", the people to suffer the most from these cuts will actually be low income working families. This isn't just a speculative claim, it is clearly supported by evidence found in the Government's own impact assessment of the (so-called) Benefits Up-rating bill.

It is absolutely certain that the actual consequences of the 1% benefits cap are precisely the opposite of the stated objective and that the "Making work pay" narrative is a carefully crafted lie. A more honest slogan would surely have been "Making work pay significantly less".

Defending real terms cuts in welfare payments to the working poor isn't the only example of the "making work pay" fallacy being used to promote polices which actually reduce the earning potential of those that work hard. Here's Iain Duncan Smith bragging about how Universal Credit will "incentivise work" and "make work pay":
"The introduction of Universal Credit demonstrates our ongoing commitment to transforming the welfare system and will improve the lives of millions of claimants by incentivising work and making work pay" (source)
In July 2013 The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published their analysis on how the introduction of Universal Credit would affect working people. Some of the shocking examples they cite reveal the enormity of the lie that Universal Credit will "incentivise work" and "make work pay". The following examples demonstrate that in many cases the Universal Credit system will result in people working many additional hours for a just a few pounds extra a week, or even finding themselves in the absurd situation where they are financially worse off working full-time than they would be working part-time.
Example one
A couple with two young children, where one person works full-time on the minimum wage, after receiving Universal Credit, would have disposable income of £346 a week. If the second parent also finds full-time employment at the minimum wage, their household disposable income would rise to £375, meaning that the second parent would be working a full working week for just £29 extra income, an effective pay rate of less than £1 an hour. You'd have to be totally bonkers to believe that a system that withdraws benefits so sharply that an individual ends up gaining less than £1 an hour by working a full time job, will somehow "incentivise work" and "make work pay". Who on earth would want to leave their kids in the care of strangers so that they can go to work for an effective pay rate of less than £1 an hour?

Example two
A lone parent with two young children, working three days a week would have disposable income of £274 per week, however, if they decide to go full-time and work 5 days a week their disposable income would actually shrink to £272 per week. Who would work an extra two days a week for minus two pounds? If Universal Credit financially penalises the individual for working more hours, this is not only failing in the stated objectives of "incentivising work" and "making work pay", it is actually "disincentivising work" and "making the individual pay to work"!
Analysis of the consequences of Tory welfare reforms like the Benefits Up-rating Bill and the introduction of Universal Credit, demonstrates beyond doubt that the actual consequences of these reforms are the exact opposite of the oft stated objectives.

How is it possible for a party to enact policies which produce consequences that are the polar opposite of their stated objectives? In my view there are only two possibilities: Either they are suffering the almost infinite levels of incompetence necessary in order to enact policies which produce the exact opposite outcomes to the stated intentions; or the policies are actually designed with these outcomes in mind, and the "Making work pay" propaganda campaign is some kind of sick Orwellian joke drempt up by a bunch of malicious ex-public school boys.

For anyone that hesitates to believe that Tories would deliberately use ideas plucked directly from the pages of 1984, please consider William Hague's speech to Parliament on June 10 2013, in which he attempted to defend the vast scale of NSA spying by invoking George Orwell's "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" argument.
"If you are a law abiding citizen of this country going about your business and your personal life, you have nothing to fear" - William Hague (Hansard)
Just days later it was revealed that GCHQ have been running a covert surveillance operation so invasive that it made the NSA operation look almost reasonable, and that the Metropolitan police deliberately targeted the law abiding family and friends of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence in order to dig dirt so that they could be discredited as witnesses. Not only was he using a totalitarian argument stolen from the pages of 1984, he was also using it in the knowledge that it was blatantly untrue.

Given all of this evidence, I find it difficult to conclude anything other than the that the leaders of the Tory party are using Orwell's 1984 as a handy guidebook on maintaining political power, rather than as the dire dystopian warning against totalitarianism that it was actually intended as.

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More articles from

The Making Work Pay fallacy
More riches for the rich, recession for the rest
Tory priorities: Serve the rich, smash the poor
         People of Britian, your Prime Minister is lying to you
People of Britian, your Prime Minister is lying to you (again)

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