There’s a new gang in town: the unsettingly-titled Cabinet Office's Behavioural Insight Team. Their activities so far seem benign and sensible enough – making it automatically an option to give to charities when using an ATM; signing new drivers up to the organ donation scheme by default: basically using psychology and habituation rather than legislation to modify the country’s behaviour – but they leave me with a nasty taste in my mouth. A taste that makes me rant and rave rather than act anything like the good girl the government seems to want me to be. For a start, why would the Tories be interested in coaxing people into making more charitable donations precisely when a great chunk of the population is having an appalling time financially, if not to save itself the job of paying for cuts fallout? Charitable funding being, after all, one of the areas to feel the Osborne axe. (Scrape away at the surface and there’s some nasty sexism going on with those cuts: let’s not forget that it is women who make up the majority of the public sector workers who will see jobs and incomes cut by Tory policies as well as traditionally being the biggest donors to charity both in terms of money and time. Ideally, I think, the ConDems would have all women working for free, rings on their fingers and back at the stove, Valiumed-up à la Betty Draper, because apart from anything else it would save a packet on the childcare vouchers.)
This Orwellian psy-ops team is developing clever ways of making us behave better by exploiting, in the deliciously pointed words of the Independent, our “shame, vanity, laziness and the desire to fit in”. (Who needs hellfire when you’ve got Cameron with his combination of dangling moral carrots and psychological pigboards? He’s making the fundamental raison d’être of the C of E utterly redundant and will leave it as merely the provider of rather stately venues for communal sing-a-longs. Which, on reflection, would be no bad thing.) The sheer cuntarded arrogance of the political class in assuming that the general public is so dumb and apathetic that they need to be tricked – “nudged”, in the terminology of the special advisors to the unit – into altruism is one thing but what is more astounding is the fact that none of this is the business of the government anyway. The morality of the state, its laws and its governance, is the work of the people who comprise it, not their temporarily elected representatives. (On the subject of morality, there was a perceptive article recently, arguing that UKUncut represented a sea-change in political activity because although the tax loopholes exploited by big corporations and non-dom billionaires may be legal, they are not, by any measure, right: it’s up to us to make that different.)
The unpleasant aftertaste continues to fire up when I think about the government using “normative behaviour” to shame people into behaving how they’d like them to. Whose norms would those be? Cameron’s? Nick “Integrity” Clegg’s? Ha! Or even those of the new New New Labour leader, Ed Milliband, who fudged pathetically when asked why he wasn’t married and, instead giving it a bit of self-respecting “marriage is an outmoded, unnecessary, essentially misogynist institution and state intrusion into my private life is both irrelevant and oppressive”, mumbled that he would get round to it eventually? Cop out. It’s not as if a single one of those Westminster weasels is going to be worthy of any kind of trust: you wouldn’t let George Osborne babysit your tortoise, let alone give him dominion over your morality. I certainly don’t imagine that shaming or guilt-tripping people into behaving according to Tory-prescribed norms is going to end well for anyone who isn’t the two-point-five kind. These are people who have demonstrably lied and conned their way into power, who have let their wealthy pals get away with tax murder and whose troops bomb villages and kids and parties and journalists and thus get away with yer actual blood’n’guts murder as well.
So how fucking dare these immoral scum suggest that the country’s ills could be cured if only people could just be gently shoved into being nicer to each other? If all the freely-given, un-nudged voluntary work parents, for example, do now were added up in woman-hours and paid at minimum wage, I wonder how large a bill would be presented to the Treasury? And they want MORE. Make no mistake, these people are bastardly in the extreme and no amount of getting McDonald’s to coax people to eat more broccoli is going to change that. They want to make up for the fact that hospitals are underfunded and understaffed by allowing family members to stay around and help out: wouldn’t it be better, really, to cough up the funds to make hospitals safer, more humane places to be ill in first? Otherwise it’s arse-covering rather than progress.
It’s almost as if communities didn’t already exist, people didn’t already volunteer their time and energy, wouldn’t look after each other anyway… Even if you believe (go on, try it) that the Tory cabinet were being sincere rather than devious with these proposals, they must live in an almighty bubble of selfishness and greed if they think that by covertly steering the herd into being nice everything will be OK. Because, of course, your poverty and ignorance and ill-health is YOUR fault, you lazy gits, not ours, so YOU fix it.
What is going on is a smoke-and-mirrors diversionary tactic: it shifts the blame onto people (particularly the working class, all broken as they apparently are) and their flawed ways whilst letting the industrialists continue to pollute and the bombers bomb and the politicians lie and the tax-exiles bathe in Martini. And it’s crap. Because, really, who is need of behaviour modification if not the Eton Rifles?
Here is a deep-rooted (disingenuous, hypocritical, Daily Mailoid) misrepresentation of society by a bunch of rich, powered-up twats who boast about loving the Jam and the Smiths while their whole being shouts out Huey Lewis And The News. And that’s being ridiculously generous. Society functions on so many levels beyond the financial and the legislative: musicians and artists and writers know this perfectly well because they do what they do for the sheer heart-swelling love of it. Yes, wages would be nice, but the lack of them hasn’t stopped the flow, doesn’t prevent people from writing blogs or putting on gigs or setting up record labels. They certainly don’t need sticks or psychological trickery to make them contribute (ugh, vile word). Likewise those who help out at Macmillan day centres or man helplines for charities.
It boils down to the fact that if you think of society as mudlike and manipulable, you’re doing the individuals who constitute it a great disservice and scoffing at the phenomenal amount of vigour and love and creativity that powers the wheels of community. If that lot in Westminster really wanted to make the world a better, healthier, more enjoyable place to live in, then instead of conning people into false altruism or covertly-improved nutrition, they would modify the behaviour of the Capitalism-sanctioned nudge-merchants that we all have to negotiate daily, with their grubby paws in every area of life from advertising to schooling. Because, if you look at it that way, it’s a great big mediated bread-and-circuses con trick, all of it, from national newspapers to rubbish TV, from deceitful, dangerous governmental reports about WMD and drugs to unheeded police codes of conduct. Even the implicit decision of the government to allow its sinister little team to be publicised by the papers should furrow a brow or two. In the age of Wikileaks everything gets to be questioned: stuff that was once the realm of conspiracy whisperers is out in the open, the lies palpable; Big Society, Big Brother, whatever, it’s time to dig our heels in, get nasty and say no.