Category: sociology

The Violence of Austerity 2

Rudolph Virchow (1848) argued that ‘medicine is a social science and politics is nothing more than medicine on a grand scale’.

Structural and Institutional violence arises from the implementation of Austerity. Cameron, Osborne, May and Hammond have blood on their hands. Johnson, Gove, Rudd, Grayling…….

In 2013 David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu published ‘The Body Economic – Why Austerity Kills’ and stated that since 2007 the total number of suicides had risen by 10000 across the US and Europe while millions lost access to basic healthcare. Chopra (2014) reviews the book and points out that ‘Mental health outcomes feature prominently in these analyses. For instance, the authors report 1000 excess suicides in the UK due to the effects of this recession and a second wave of ‘austerity suicides’ in 2012‘.

 

Following the Great Financial Crash (GFC) of 2008, the neoliberal project in the UK was given an opportunity to push further on its (class) agenda which had been based on reducing State support for the public sector and social security claimants, encouraging privatisations, establishing financial deregulation, reduction of corporate tax and removing ‘red tape’ (worker’s rights and enviromental protection). The theory was based on ‘trickle down economics’ and Hayekian ‘free markets’. Jobs, growth and investment would follow. Austerity in this context was seen as a necessary corrective to the failing economy. It was not mentioned of course that one reason for the GFC was neoliberalism itself. In effect we have a neoliberal policy being implemented to correct the failures of neoliberalism.

For the sake of argument, lets accept the claim that indeed the UK enjoyed pre crash levels of growth above OECD averages (it has not), produced a high number of well paid secure, high skilled jobs with wage growth (it did not), and that investment significantly rose (it has not) and that productivity has soared (it has not). What is Austerity and what are its founding myths?

If a major tenet of neoliberalism is a reduction in state withdrawal from services and from support for workers and claimants, Austerity turbo charges it in the name of deficit reduction to address the national debt.

Austerity is first and foremost a move to permanently dissemble the protection state (Cooper and Whyte 2017) through reductions in targetted public spending. The view is taken that skivers and shirkers have grown fat on the largesse of the British Welfare State, a State that breeds dependency and since the GFC it is argued is now unaffordable. It is not about reducing state spending per se, as subsidies to the nuclear industry and help to buy schemes attest. Indeed State spending as a % share of GDP has not really moved since 2010. It is this that makes the ‘reduction of state spending’ neoliberalism rhetoric (as ideologically based class war) but not reality for the rich.

 

Austerity is based on the idea of ‘expansionary fiscal consolidation‘ (Alesina and Perotti 1995). Government cuts to public spending will (the theory says) encourage more private consumption and business investment. Not cutting public spending jeopardises investment and competitiveness. The reality is that public consumption in the UK is debt fuelled rather than from higher wages, and investment remains very poor.

Three myths underpin this approach from 2010:

  1. We all played a part in the financial crisis (New Labour caused the crash).
  2. Austerity is necessary.
  3. We are all in this together.

However, this masks real reasons for the policy:

  1. To further ease Capital Accumulation for the rich.
  2. To further extend wealth by growing inequality and through dispossession.
  3. To permanently dissemble the protectionist State.

In short: the violence of class war. Capital v Labour, the irreducible foundational contradiction of capitalism.

The institutional violence meted out by for example by G4S and ATOS is ‘ordinary’ mundane process violence, it is not exceptional but routine as experienced in people’s lives, involving fear humiliation, hunger, shame and early deaths. Using ‘maladaptive coping’ such as eating high fat sugary food, smoking, excessive drinking, taking drugs and having unprotected promiscuous sex, are as much reactions to as causes of poverty and violence. This ‘Moral Underclass Discourse’, which points to poor individual lifestyle choices, ignores the wider determinants of health, the mass of data on the ‘social gradient’ in health and of health inequalities. It also does not understand the complexity of personal agency and social structure in which reflexive deliberations (our inner voices) mediate between objective social structures, cultures and our personal concerns and projects.

We make our own history, but not in the circumstances of our own choosing“.

Institutional violence is pervasive and normalised so that we don’t always see it or feel it for what it is. Food banks, deportations, homelessness, debt, trafficking, evictions, precarity in low wage jobs are becoming part of the social fabric that is getting thinner by the day. This violence is slow violence whose effects may take time to come through. It also provides a pervasive threat of violence for those lacking the financial, social, cultural capital to either protect themselves or to escape.

Richard Horton (2017) in the Lancet (note not ‘Marxism Today’) outlined the arguments well:

Economists are the gods of global health. Their dazzling cloak of quantitative authority and their monstrously broad range of inquiry silence the smaller voices of medicine, trapped as we are in the modest discipline of biology. Economists stepped beyond the boundaries of the body long ago. They now bestride the predicaments of our planet with confident insouciance. It is economists we must thank for the modern epidemic of austerity that has engulfed our world. Austerity is the calling card of neoliberalism. Its effects follow an inverse harm law—the impact of increasing amounts of austerity varies inversely with the ability of communities to protect themselves. Austerity is an instrument of malice. Search under austerity and you will find few countries unaffected. Greece, of course, but also Mozambique, France, Scotland, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Cameroon, Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa, and England. Economists advocating, and governments implementing, austerity naturally reject the word. Instead, they call austerity, “living within our means”. But be clear. What is promoted as fiscal discipline is a political choice. A political choice that deepens the already open and bloody wounds of the poor and precarious. The Financial Times, a newspaper usually in thrall to the spectacle of economics, called these policies “inhumane” last weekend.

But austerity is also a social contract. People accept severe restraints in public spending, actively in democracies or passively in autocracies, because they accept the unpalatable prescription of abstinence. Yet the public too has a choice. And they are exercising that choice in countries across the globe. Take the UK. Back in 1991, two-thirds of the British population wanted more taxation and spending. But by 2006, only a third of people backed redistribution of wealth. If not welcomed, austerity was accepted. Not now. In the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, published last week, public opinion had turned against the idea of brutal scarcity. 48% of people wanted taxation increased to enable greater investments in society. 42% supported redistribution of income. And health was their priority—83% of people wanted more spending on our collective wellbeing. After a decade of cutting back the reach of government, the public is now demanding a stronger and more generous state. The contract authorising austerity has been torn up“.

Richard seems to be suggesting we may be at a turning point. I hope he is right, but with a Brexit fixated government backed by 30% of those eligible to vote (the 52%) and the cheerleaders in the right wing press driving politics onwards, I don’t yet see much hope.

The Violence of Austerity

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

This is based on the recent 2017 book by Vickie Cooper and David Whyte.

When society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual.” Engels (1845) ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’.

Let us be clear from the outset. This is not about interpersonal violence carried out by one person directly on another using physical or emotional force. This is about Institutional violence, carried out by smartly dressed ordinary men and women in offices up and down the country, who often are merely following orders or who were architects of the policies that kill or cause physical and psychological harm. The malefactors of great wealth stand behind the lines cheering them on, using their propaganda news media to convince the victims that the victims are to blame. The malefactors of great wealth also grow fat on the proceeds of the sales of products designed to dull the senses and anaesthetise the pain caused by institutional or structural violence – high fat, sugar loaded fast foods, cigarettes, alcohol, cheap TV and mass culture in a dystopian miasma of false dreams.

Some may doubt the existence of institutional violence, perhaps arguing that only human beings can directly inflict pain. Johan Galtung (1969) in ‘Violence, Peace and Peace Research’ wrote of structural violence; a violence in which some social structure or social institution causes harm by preventing people from meeting basic needs. This is a model of violence that goes beyond notions that focus only on individual agency. Gregg Barak (2003) in ‘Violence and Nonviolence: pathways to understanding’ argues:

Like interpersonal forms of violence, institutional forms include physically or emotionally abusive acts. However, institutional forms of violence are usually, but not always, impersonal: that is to say, almost any person from the designated group of victims will do.

Yes. “any person” from the sea of faceless ‘skivers, shirkers, unemployed, disabled, sick, mentally ill, low paid and feckless’ who have been systematically stripped of their personhood by bureaucratic processes designed to make their lives hell in order to ‘incentivise’ them to find work.

Barak goes on: “Moreover, abuses or assaults that are practiced by corporate bodies—groups, organizations, or even a single individual on behalf of others—include those forms of violence that over time have become “institutionalized,” such as war, racism, sexism, terrorism, and so on. These forms of violence may be expressed directly against particular victims by individuals and groups or indirectly against entire groups of people by capricious policies and procedures carried out by people “doing their jobs,” differentiated only by a myriad of rationales

People “doing their jobs” using thoughtlessness, banality and cliché to justify their actions or perhaps in fear of joining the ranks of the precariat themselves. The current most important banality and cliché currently in force is ‘Austerity’ and its attendant lies used as justification.

Galtung: “violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations”

  1. Violence is a phenomenon which reduces a person’s potential for performance. A distinction must be made between violence and force, since the former breeds negative results, while this is not necessarily so in the case of the latter. This is an important option, because many people consider that violence may have both positive and negative results.
  2. Violence should be objectively measured according to its results, not in a subjective manner. Suicide, mental illness, mortality and morbidity rates, hunger, and poverty.

Felipe, MacGregor and Marcial Rubio refer back to Galtung and provide their own definition of violence:

A physical, biological or spiritual pressure, directly or indirectly exercised by a person on someone else, which, when exceeding a certain threshold, reduces or annuls that person’s potential for performance, both at an individual and group level, in the society in which this takes place”.

Criticism of structural or institutional violence, and the denial thereof, may focus on the need for an actor; an actor who can then be held liable for such action. Personal or direct violence is a violence in which an aggressor can be identified, face to face, whereby the victim can recognise a guilty person through direct confrontation. This is far too narrow a definition with perhaps the paradigm case for institutional violence being Adolf Eichmann who never actually got his hands dirty.

If these definitions hold, current government ministers, civil servants, local authority bureaucrats are complicit in the violence inflicted upon claimants for universal credit, those who died undergoing work capability assessments and those who died in Grenfell Tower.

It is the contention of Cooper and Whyte, along with Stuckler and Basu, that ‘Austerity kills’.

Sex and Thugs and Gun Control

Photo by Thomas Tucker on Unsplash

Sex. Authority. Nanny. Spanking and Masochism.

All traits probably to be found in the breasts of certain Posh and blond Tory spokespersons, and their fellow travellers. These men , and it is usually men, are both architects and victims of the ‘repressive desublimation’ they want for us and themselves. They want to punish themselves and to amplify their autoerotic impulses through punishing the country, for what is austerity but puritanical self loathing and punishment as redemption for unfulfilled, and prohibited, sexual sins.

Through the offer of gratifications, repressive desublimation removes the energies otherwise available for a social critique; and thus to function as a conservative force under the guise of liberation.

In other words, deeper psychosexual tensions within the individual need to find a gratifying release which for some is Austerity for others it is guns, both are touted as in some way providing liberation and freedom in an inversion of morality.

“Suppression of the natural sexuality of the child…makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good, and adjusted in the authoritarian sense; it paralyses the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties” (Wilhelm Reich 1933).

Authority, and its fear, are repressed sexual impulses manifest then in obedience and conformity. Love of ‘Monarchy, Military and Middle England’ are manifestations of unfulfilled sexual desires which are both exciting but repressed as dirty. On the outside we are clean, we wear clean uniforms and we conform to then outwardly express cleanliness because we are trying to fool everyone, especially ourselves, and that our inner dirty little secret must stay hidden. In extremis, this is turned into authoritarian control for everyone, because they fear they can’t control themselves.

Scratch the surface of a conformist authoritarian and you will find a dirty little wanker terrified that he has been caught out.

We do have restrictions to protect third parties from the actions of ‘free’ individuals. In the case of guns, apart from a questionable emotional attachment to semi automatic weapons, there is no reason for a civilian to own such military hardware. By all means buy and own sport handguns and sport shotguns but within a strictly licensed and controlled environment. But military hardware? No, I argue you should not own one.

Never.

Not even in rifle clubs.

There is darkness there. Look deep into your soul, really deep and I think you’ll find psychosexual issues at the root of much of gun ownership and gun worship. It’s a penis substitute for weak or bullied people who perceive lack of control in many areas of life, and thus have a deep emotional drive to show to the world and to themselves that they are people to be reckoned with. They then rationalise this psychosexual inner drama by externalising it and referring to spurious notions of liberty, rights and second amendment bollocks. It’s a small wonder this does not happen more often as more and more Americans begin to feel national impotency in the eyes of a laughing world, adding to their sense of personal impotency.

Shooting one off shows ’em eh? Still got it, still got a hard one in my hand.

What turns a person on about a powerful tube that ejaculates material at the stroke of a finger?

Shooting inanimate objects in controlled sporting conditions in ranges is probably not based in sex, but I strongly suspect that is the case for owning an AK47* in Nevada.

So, no, Mr Trump, this is not ‘pure evil’. A category so shorn of explanatory power that it’s as useful as showing a pair of shaved bollocks to a judge in order to support your claim for leniency.

 

 

*insert your favourite grouping of letters and numbers.

The ‘will of the people’ is a chimera.

Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

“The term chimera has come to describe anything composed of very disparate parts, or perceived as wildly imaginative, implausible, or dazzling.”

“The people have spoken” and we must respect the “will of the people”. So goes the mantra. It adds that democracy itself is undermined if “the will of the people” is not followed through. And how is this “will of the people” expressed? Through a simple majority vote in a plebiscite in which a complex issue having long term serious consequences was reduced to a simple binary choice.

In political philosophy, the general will (French: volonté générale) is the ‘will of the people as a whole’ The term was made famous by 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

“The law is the expression of the general will. All citizens have the right to contribute personally, or through their representatives, to its formation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, are equally admissible to all public dignities, positions, and employments, according to their capacities, and without any other distinction than that of their virtues and their talents.” Article Six of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (French: Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen), composed in 1789 during the French Revolution.

I’m arguing that there is an unbreachable gap between the Theory and its Practice, and that it’s theory is undermined by the lack of analysis of ‘power’ in modern (finance, rentier) capitalist societies, for there never can be equality while capitalism endures. Equality before the law, and equality of representation, as an expression of the ‘general will’, is an ambition that is forever thwarted. For many this is a good thing anyway.

Rousseau sets out a laudable Enlightenment aim regarding the equality of citizens before the state but its practice becomes a bourgeois justification for obfuscation of the nature of power, capital accumulation and exploitation.

By ‘Bourgeois’,  I mean a sociologically defined class, and for simplification, I’m referring to people (and their apologists) with a certain social, cultural and financial capital belonging to an affluent and often opulent stratum of the ‘middle class’ but more correctly are the capitalist class, who stand opposite the working class. Jacob Rees Mogg, although an aristocrat, exemplifies the high end of the bourgeoisie. Other prominent members would include Richard Branson, Nigel Farage, Theresa May, Tony Blair, David Cameron. Even Royalty has been reduced to being bourgeois ‘as image’ (‘Kate and Wills’ for fucks sake) in a deliberate attempt to make them look more ‘normal’ and thus acceptable in austere times.

Who are ‘the people’ ? Bourgeois theory reduces everyone to an undefined abstract mass in which there is a right to equality, an equality however that has been so eviscerated of any force that it has been reduced to meaning only the freedom of expression via the ballot box. ‘One person, one Vote’.  In reality it is ‘political franchise’ equality, not an economic one, or a social one, or a legal one. However these other aspects of ‘the people’s’ equality, cannot be disaggregated except abstractly. The reality of social life is that this bourgeois undifferentiated mass is in fact riven with divisions of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, region and identities with the result that there is inequality, and inequity, of opportunity, outcome and resources. There is a lack of fairness, freedom or justice in many areas of social and political life.

There is no ‘the people’.

There is (bourgeois) Capital and Labour, and within those two categories there are further divisions.

Parliament has been captured by the bourgeoisie and cannot express any collective will. There is no ‘collective will’. There is ideology wrapped up in the glitter of democracy.

Capital: There are powerful actors with so much finance, social, and cultural capital (Pierre Bourdieu) that they can buy power (Graham Scambler’s ‘Greedy Bastards Hypothesis) and bypass Rousseau’s entreaty for equality. “Men of wealth buy men of power”. And yes, it is usually white men in the U.K. If you doubt the power of capital to fashion society, culture and economy you’ve swallowed bourgeois ideology propagated through mass media of communication, for example via Murdoch’s empire. Read up on the Koch brothers in the US, or the actions of wealthy landowners in the UK. Read Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’, or Foucault in ‘Archeaology of Knowledge’ or Antonio Gramsci on Hegemony, or Marcuse in ‘One Dimensional Man’ …or the rest of the work of the Frankfurt School. Let’s not of course forget the works of feminists as such as Simone de Beauvoir or huge literature of post colonialist critique.

If there is no ‘people’ then there can be be no ‘will’. If powerful groups of bourgeois actors can use money, power, influence to direct citizens into acceptable (to bourgeois ) modes of thinking then notions of ‘will’ are diluted. Whose will is being expressed here?

Further, on the EU: Bourgeois thinking is divided itself, resulting in the spectacle of bourgeois actors lying to each other safe in the knowledge that their power base and wealth is not being challenged, just the surface form of political organisation. The UK is a thouroughly bourgeois country either in or out of the EU. Men of wealth will not affected to the same degree as ordinary citizens whose lives will be made or broken by bourgeois decision making.

The law in practice does not represent General Will, it represents the outcome of the battle of powerful bourgeois actors and their battle with ‘the proletariat’. The EU referendum result expressed that ideological battle within the ranks of the bourgeoisie, in which some resorted to dangerous populism, lies, fears and deflection. It was as legitimate an expression of ‘general will’ as the Prince of Wales’ wank stain is to a claim to the throne. They are playing a dangerous game in which some forces of white proletarian dissatisfaction with elites is being channeled toward ethnic groups. This so called ‘will’ is being distorted towards racism if not fascism.

Finally, simple majority voting can be tyrannical, and more so if complex issues are reduced to overly simplistic binaries of leave/remain.

 

 

The Task….

It is the political task of the social scientist — as of any liberal educator — continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals”.

C Wright Mills. The Sociological Imagination (1959).

This statement is the reason for a good deal of my work. I was first introduced to the book ‘The Sociological Imagination’ way back in 1983 when it was the very first text given to us undergraduates. I admit the full force of the book’s meaning was understood only later and after reading various sociological theories and research studies did this ‘quality of mind‘ begin to flourish.

The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise

In everyday conversations, and on social media, we speak about any manner of things that excite us, annoy us, amuse us. We complain and comment. All too often however we do not engage in the ‘quality of mind’ that is the sociological imagination and thus we fail to fully understand the issue. This does not matter for the trivial issues, but it does for wider social and political issues. Our lack of critical understanding, our lack of an historical context , our lack of imagination, leads all too often to views and actions that are stupid, racist, dangerous and callous. In so called democratic societies we end up voting for stupid, racist, dangerous and callous political leaders.

At best, this lack of an imagination leads to policy that is woefully lacking. In a previous post I outlined the complex and multifarious nature of the obesogenic environment.

Those struggling with weight gain are all too familiar with the stigma that follows overly simplistic explanations and policy makers are all too readily drawn to lifestyle drift response to weight gain.  Lifestyle drift refers to the phenomenon whereby policy makers accept that there are wider determinants to health issues such as weight gain, but drift towards lifestyle responses as the key interventions. This results in the insanity of accepting the ‘obesogenic environment’ but then advocating individual behaviour change as the policy response.

It is necessary for me and others like me to point out that your personal trouble is to be understood not only, or just, as a result of your personal decision making. It is to show that your personal decision making occurs in a society in which there are powerful individuals, organisations, corporations, technologies and social structures who have a vested interest in the decisions you make, and who then collectively spend billions in product development, marketing with ‘sign values‘, demand management, and dissatisfaction manufacturing to make a profit. Claims of ‘corporate social responsibility‘, or ‘creating shared value‘, have to be taken with huge truck loads of salt in far too many examples.

The sociological imagination links your individual decision to drink coca cola with the vast network that lies behind the point of delivery of that can into your hands. Your ‘personal biography’ which includes “I drink coca cola” is linked to this point in history in which there exists a multi billion dollar corporation with a vested interest in you drinking its product. The sociological imagination takes this relationship between can and corporation and investigates what this means. It does not say “Thou shalt not drink coca cola”. It does however provide information about what that simple act means socially and politically so that we come to see drinking a can of coke as a social and political act as well as a thirst quenching one.

The Sociological Imagination

“The sociological imagination enables us to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society. That is its task and its promise” C. Wright Mills

Photo by Lance Anderson on Unsplash

This is a key work in the sociological literature and provides a way of thinking about our experiences as individuals in society at any given point in time. The argument is that to fully understand ourselves we have to apply the ‘sociological imagination’ to our ‘personal troubles’.

The relevance for health is that this takes us beyond making overly simplistic analysis of our health behaviours, experiences and decisions. If our analysis is too simplistic then we come up partial answers to health care issues at best and irrelevant, judgemental or dangerous answers at worst.

C Wright Mills wrote:

‘…men (sic) do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change…’ (p3).

So, what is a ‘trouble’?  That might be an episode of illness.

 

 

Personal troubles:

 

  • Having type 2 diabetes and thus having to manage that condition
  • Living alone
  • Being overweight
  • Worries about changes in the benefits system

 

 

We may not consider that our issues (as personal troubles) are better or more fully understood as being linked to living in the 21st century, or that the roots may lie in current society. We are

‘…seldom aware of the intricate connection between the patterns of their own lives and the course of world history.’ (p4).

We do not

‘…possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history…’  (p4).

In addition we:

‘…cannot cope with their personal troubles in such ways as to control the structural transformations that lie behind them.’  (p4).

What ‘structural transformations’ might be behind living alone, diabetes, weight gain and money worries?

What is a ‘structural transformation?’

If we think of society has having ‘structures’, which vary from society to society and which varies within the same society over time (history), we may begin to understand that society is but the outcome of individuals, groups, communities and populations deciding to act out their relationships one with another. In doing so they create (and are created by) society and its social ‘structures’. We have family structures, gender role structures, work organisation and employment structures, educational structures, health care delivery structures, food manufacture, marketing and delivery structures, economic structures…..  A commonly experienced social structure today is the baking or buying and eating of cake and coffee as a social event. In response to, or perhaps to encourage this, we now have both small businesses in town centres and global corporations (Nestle, Starbucks, Costa Coffee) oriented to selling us high calorie non essential  food and drink.

Relationships between people evolve as humans live their lives and develop their capacities and these relationships then act as structural patterns for others to follow. This process of ‘evolution’ and ‘pattern’ changes over time and between societies. An individual thus is both shaped by these (structural) patterns of living, and in living their lives they in turn shape the patterns (structures). Our lives are thus ‘structured’ but not determined by these structures.

What social structures are there and what are those structures that lie beneath the personal troubles outlined above?

To help answer that question Wright Mills argued that

 

what they need…is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves… this quality…(is) the sociological imagination.” (p5).

 

What information do we have about Type 2 diabetes – its rate, prevalence, risk groups, epidemiology, aetiology, and the wider determinants? To fully understand why anyone now has Type 2 we need to get this information and consider for example that:

 

We might be ‘overweight’. What exactly does that mean and how much of an issue is it? The fact that we might now have type 2 diabetes suggests that previous diet, levels of exercise and lifestyle may have contributed. What do we know about weight gain and the link to diabetes?

Our personal story of being overweight is linked to various structural and technological changes in society over our lifetime. These changes include the abundance of fossil fuels to use for energy (a technological change) instead of food, so that cars replace cycling/walking. Active travel is replaced by driving, while the social meaning of driving and car ownership underpin our unwillingness to cycle, walk to the bus stop or railway station.

So, to what degree are we responsible for gaining this weight? Many of us have lived through a time when the public’s understanding of diet was perhaps rudimentary, constrained as it was by rationing and availability and the social norms that construct a ‘healthy’ diet. Many of us experienced ‘socialisation’ which involves learning the values, norms and beliefs of our culture regarding what is appropriate food. To what degree is  vegetarianism, veganism or the mediterranean diet, popular and or promoted as healthy option?

We need to consider what a healthy diet is and how the public get to know. Currently the eatwell plate is a suggestion, but to what degree do the public know about it, how much are they guided by it and what is the evidence base for it? We might want to consider if there are any vested interests in selling us high calorie, sugar dense foodstuffs?

Exercising a sociological imagination also asks what social changes occurred so that we have now an abundance of sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup?

Our early lives would have been guided by social norms and what shops could provide, as well as cost. the ‘personal trouble’ is weight gain but it is also a public issue as the whole UK population has gained weight. So we need to connect changes in social structures and historical events to the personal story that is a diagnosis of diabetes, to fully understand current health.

The role of sugar in the diet is an issue, what is the history of the dietary advice regarding fat and sugar? We may well have been consuming sugar in amounts that seems normal and indeed is hidden. This could be part of what is called an ‘obesogenic environment’ in which we are immersed and have been for several decades. What do we believe and think about sugar in the diet? To what degree does rational thinking about the risk to weight from eating a ‘normal’ UK diet, feature in buying, cooking and meal preparation decisions?

 

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life….’ (p5).

This is what Wright Mills refers to when he argued that:

The first fruit of this imagination…is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of all those individuals in his circumstances’ (p5).

 

Wright Mills outlines:

‘The personal troubles of milieu and the public issues of social structure’. (p8).

Troubles:

These occur within the individual’s immediate experience and relationships. They relate to the individual self and to those areas of social life of which the individual is immediately, directly and personally aware. The description of what the trouble is and what the solutions are, come from the individual and within the scope of their ‘social milieu’. A trouble is a private matter; they are values that we feel are threatened.

One of our personal troubles may be feeling and living alone and feeling that whatever we does makes no difference (learned helplessness). The value being threatened here is the value of social relationships being missed.

 

 

Learned helplessness is a state of mind which results in the inability or the unwillingness to avoid negative experiences as a result of thinking that those experiences are unavoidable (even if they are avoidable). This arises because one has learned that one does not have control over the situation. Learned helplessness theory is the view that clinical depression and related mental illnesses may result from a perceived absence of control over the outcome of a situation.

 

Public Issues:   

These are matters that go beyond the local environment of the individual and their inner life. They result as an ‘organisation’ of many such situations into the structure and institutions of society. The countless individual social milieux (i.e. ‘all the lonely people’ in the UK) overlap and create society at points in history. An issue is a public matter; issues threaten values held by the public. When this happens there may be public debate about what that value is and what really threatens it. There is some evidence that loneliness is becoming a public issue as the scale of the issue becomes clearer and its health effects become known.

One of Wright Mill’s examples to explain the use of the sociological imagination is unemployment:

‘When…only one man is unemployed, that is his personal trouble, and for its relief we look to the character of the man, his skills and his immediate opportunities. When…15 million…are unemployed, that is an issue, and we may not hope to find the solution within the range of opportunities open to any one individual. The very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of society and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals’. (p9).

What the individual unemployed man (out of the 15 million) experiences is often caused by the structural changes in society. When global economics means that steel can be produced more cheaply in a foreign country (a structural change) then a UK steel works shuts down. To be aware of the idea of social structure and to use it, is to be able to trace links among a great variety of individual social milieu which, as Wright Mills’ states, ‘…is to possess the sociological imagination’ (p11).

There is more than one person who lives alone, is overweight, struggling with diabetes and has money worries. Therefore these personal troubles are also public issues of society if we use the sociological imagination.

To fully understand our life means understanding how society has changed and the opportunities and threats to health that arise as a consequence. It means understanding that our personal agency, the freedom to act, operates within particular social structures that constrain action as well as providing enablements. So, what constrains our action, what enables us to take control of our lives?

Understanding obesity using the sociological imagination links the personal trouble of weight gain with the public issue of whole population shifts in BMI within the context of the obesogenic environment. A fuller understanding of ‘fatness’ goes beyond overly simplistic calculations of calories in = calories out type equations, and simplistic exhortations to “eat less move more”.

Implications:

Health and illness is to be thought as arising from social structure as well as, if not more than, biology. The knowledge that diabetes results not just from the individual’s choice of diet, but also from the social environment, should indicate a  public health and socio-political role. Health education is not just an individually focused issue, based on a biomedical understanding. Health itself has social origins. The concept of an ‘obesogenic environment’ suggests just that.

Therefore strategies that will assist people to move towards health must take into account the social and political context in which they live. Society has to change as much as the individual. Individualised models for change that ignore this will have less chance of success.

Understanding that illness, although at first may seem self-inflicted and out of free will, may result from the social milieu of the individual.  Victim blaming of the unpopular patient, the obese, the self-harmer, the drug addict, the alcoholic, is not only poor practice but is theoretically myopic. That is to say it does not understand the wider determinants of health. This realisation should change the language around health into a more open, less judgemental stance towards the people. For example, the label alcoholic implies the trouble lies within the individual when the roots may also be social.

To summarise: 

  • Health and Illness both derive from socially structured human agency, societal as well as biology.
  • The patterns, experience and causes of health and illness has to be understood in the context of history and culture.
  • The meanings that people attach to health and illness not only are built by social structure but go towards creating social structures.
  • Professionals need to acknowledge the complexity of health and illness and adopt a more open, non judgmental viewpoint.
  • There is a social/political and public health role.
  • Models for change have to go beyond individualised biomedical understandings of health and illness, realising that ‘education’ is not a universal panacea.

 

Benny Goodman      September 2017

 

Antonio Gramsci on intellectual thought – challenging nursing.

Antonio Gramsci on intellectual thought – challenging nursing.

 

 

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), leader of the Italian Communist party, was arrested and imprisoned by the fascist regime in 1926 and died in the Quisisana clinic in Rome in 1937, aged 47. His pre prison work and his ‘prison notebooks’ have hugely contributed to the examination and development of political philosophy and intellectual thought. Among the ideas he developed are the role of the intellectual in culture and politics and the concept of hegemony. The prosecutor at his trial was acutely aware of his intellectual abilities, and thus threat, and stated:

 

“We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years.”

 

(Buttigeig 2011 p16).

 

Gramsci found himself in a concrete prison not of his own choosing. Nurses find themselves in an abstract prison of the mind put there by their own reason, their lifeworld colonised by the systematic distorted communication of the strategic action of powerful others.

 

This is all a world away from the daily work of nursing, and so at first pass may appear of interest only to the likes of critical social scientists or historians of political thought. Reading Gramsci opens up a discussion on what being an intellectual might mean and of how power is exercised and maintained. Nurses going about their clinical work will not be vexed by such questions and it might be the case that academic nurses will not be either. That could be a mistake given the current context outlined by Streek (2016) of global challenges to social order which have current and future impacts on health and health care delivery.

 

That context is variously called late modernity, post modernity, post industrial, disorganised, financial, rentier, or neoliberal capitalism. Wolfgang Streeck (2016) echoing Gramsci, suggests this context is actually a post-capitalist interregnum in which the old system is dying but a new social order cannot yet be born. Streeck calls the current order one of multi-morbidity, climate change being one of many frailties as we head towards social entropy, radical uncertainty and indeterminancy. Streeck argues that the current context is anchored in a variety of interconnected developments:

 

  1. Intensification of distributional (capital v labour) conflict due to declining growth.
  2. Rising social inequality.
  3. Vanishing macroeconomic manageability.
  4. Steadily increasing indebtedness (private and sovereign).
  5. Pumped up money supply (from quantitative easing).
  6. Possibility of another financial crisis as per 2008.
  7. The suspension of democracy.
  8. Slowdown of social progress.
  9. Rising Oligarchy and Plutocracy.
  10. Governments’ inability to limit the commodification of labour, money or nature.
  11. Omnipresence of corruption.
  12. Intensified competition in winner takes all markets.
  13. Unlimited opportunities for self enrichment (for the 1%).
  14. Erosion of public goods and infrastructure.
  15. The failure of the US to establish a stable global order.
  16. Public cynicism towards economics and politics.
  17. Rising populist nationalism and the spectre of fascism and isolationism in the US.
  18. Fracturing political blocs and alliances.
  19. Erosion of Democratic legitimacy and thus a democratic deficit.

 

 

To that:

 

  1. Health Inequalities.
  2. Potential Ecosystem collapse.
  3. Disruptive technologies: Automation, Artificial Intelligence and digitalisation.

 

 

Streeck seems to suggest that it is the very success of neoliberal capitalism, its defeat of social democracy and forces that would otherwise tame its destructive tendencies, that has paved the way for such developments that characterise its internal contradictions. There is nothing left to save capitalism from itself.

 

There are countervailing voices such as Joseph Norberg (on the possibility and actuality of progress), Daniel Ben-Ami (on growth based capitalism to solve ecological problems) and Stephen Pinker (on reducing levels of global violence) who paint more positive pictures. Add of course the voices of politicians who promise to ‘Make America Great Again’, to create “A country that works for everyone’ or establish ‘Russia as a Normal Great Power’ or to regain ‘primacy in South East Asia after a century of humiliation’. The picture now is one of complexity, tension, dynamics and unpredictability.

 

None of this bothers most UK nurses who work with individuals who are ill, distressed, living with long term conditions, or dying in hospital and at home. They are also involved in public health basing their approaches in general health management, health education and health promotion. Their training and education focuses on instrumental competency based knowledge and skill acquisition but it lacks critical enquiry into the context in which they work. Gramsci’s approach to intellectual enquiry could provide a blueprint for alternative or complementary critical nurse education that has to consider wider socio-political determinants of health, the sort of developments that Streeck outlines.

 

 

 

Gramsci’s thinking

 

We get an insight into how Gramsci’s brain functioned from a letter he wrote in 1929 to the wife of a comrade who also was in prison for ‘anti-fascist’ activity. The context is that of how to study while in prison. The prison referred to, of course, had concrete existence. However, if we consider that today nurses may imprison themselves within the conceptual walls of stultifying paradigms that block freedom of critical thought, for example biomedical empiricism, his thoughts on reflection and analysis might be useful. The letter predates Wright Mills’ 1959 chapter on intellectual craftsmanship, a reading of which shows some commonality in approach and is an alternative to the metrics used today in our research excellence framework assessments. One wonders if Gramsci was writing today, would he secure tenure in some contemporary Universities.

 

He wrote in the letter that one must abandon, in the prison context, the ‘scholastic mentality’ and banish the thought of pursuing a regular and in depth course of study. Along with Wright Mills who later wrote about avoiding empirical work if he could help it as it was merely about sorting out facts and disagreements about facts, this statement appears to be counter intuitive until one considers that a goal of intellectual life could be about criticality, understanding philosophy, self, culture, history, politics and society. Again put this way, many nurses may well eschew intellectual enquiry as irrelevant.

 

Gramsci urged language learning as rewarding, but more interestingly is his outlook on the relative paucity of texts in prison libraries. He argued that a political prisoner must extract “blood from stones” (Buttigeig 2011 p15). The paucity of books in prison was of course a function of the external constraints imposed by the regime. The ‘paucity of books’ available to students today may be a result not of external concrete constraints but of internal self imposed constraints as to what counts as proper reading for a degree in Nursing. Gramsci experienced a concrete prison of walls imposed by the fascist regime. We might experience a ‘prison of the mind’ constructed by dominant cultural ideas (hegemony) imposed by ourselves upon ourselves through the process of normative governmentality. Gramsci argued for ‘extracting blood from stones’, the stones being whatever he could get.

 

To get the most of the books available to him, often popular novels, Gramsci adopted the following viewpoint:

 

“Why is this always the most read and most published literature?”

“What needs does it satisfy?”

 

“What aspirations does it respond to?”

 

“What sentiments and views are represented in these awful books that have such broad appeal?”

 

For student nurses, these questions could be applied to many of the texts, for example the professional body’s literature, that they read to assist with the development of critical thinking. Critique could be emancipatory but in actuality reading ends up in uncritical acceptance. I’m not talking about appraising and critiquing research evidence or engaging in critical analysis of for example leadership theories in nursing. Criticality is lacking in the socio-political and power domain.

An example of the lack of such criticality is the almost universal acceptance of the UK’s Nursing and Midwifery Council’s revalidation process. The requirement is for nurses to renew their registration every three years by following the process outlined by the NMC. The surface reason for revalidation is that it ‘promotes greater professionalism among nurses and midwives and also improves the quality of care that patients receive by encouraging reflection on practice against the revised code’. If we apply Gramsci’s questions above to the texts on revalidation put out by the NMC, a possibility arises that we just might make alternative and critical analyses of just such banal statements in official publications.

 

“Why is the NMC always the most read and most published literature on professional behaviour?” Because of its statutory position as the regulator to protect the public. Because Nurse educators use it as the basis for their teaching. Because the NMC has the power to discipline nurses…..

“What needs does it satisfy?” Neophyte nurses, especially, need guidance on professional behaviour and standards and don’t have the time, or resources or educational preparation to consider this in an in depth way. NMC guidance provides the generally widely accepted standard……

 

“What aspirations does it respond to?” To keep one’s registration and to bolster one’s subject position as ‘safe practitioner’

 

“What sentiments and views are represented in these awful books that have such broad appeal?” The sentiment of nursing as ‘character based moral work’, of nurses as ‘caregivers’, as self sacrificial angels who always cope……

 

The answers to the 4 questions of course are myriad and those above are merely some examples requiring further reflection, reflexivity and criticism.

 

The lack of critique of the NMC on revalidation illustrates ‘normative governmentality’, in that nurses and midwives, and perhaps more interestingly nursing academics, have internalised certain norms, values and assumptions that prevent them from seeing anything other than the official line. This could be an example of what Furedi (2006) refers to as philistinism underpinned by instrumentalism in higher education, in which academics become educational technocrats rather than what Gramsci refers to as organic intellectuals.

 

Intellectuals are those with broad reading, vision and a concern for public issues. Graham Scambler argues intellectuals are not only engaged in the public sphere but do so around an identifiable moral or political position. A question arises about the degree nurses and midwives are, or wish to be, engaged in moral and political questions, the degree to which they can engage in communicative action free from systematic distorted communication.

 

The questioning of texts exemplifies the Gramscian notion of critical enquiry and action and allows us to consider such questions as, for example, what counts as research in contemporary nursing faculties. The answer to that is political in that it frames what nurse academics study, write about and publish, and it frames what students of nursing count as valid knowledge. If we apply those questions to the published outputs of contemporary nursing scholarship what answers would we get? For example, does a high h index always indicate intellectual rigour or criticality? Given the wider determinants of health, which include the social, political and ecological, it could be suggested that health care professionals would be aided in their understanding of health and illness, and hence what to do about it, by critical enquiry that goes beyond accepted epistemologies.

 

Nursing students have been told to be critical thinkers and many University curricula claim to foster such thought. Texts are not to be accepted at face value, and that we should examine assumptions and viewpoints of writers. This should go beyond for example appraising research literature for methodological rigour. Should we also appraise the metaparadigms and epistemological assumptions of ‘acceptable’ and ‘REFable’ nursing research? Should we ask what degree does contemporary scholarship in nursing reflect the sort of intellectual enquiry that Gramsci and Wright Mills advocate? In a world increasingly characterised by forces that threaten to disrupt stability and global order in ways that could be catastrophic to human health, are we preparing nurses to face that?

 

Gramsci died far too soon, and ‘without honour in his own country’. Whether he considered his life a failure in that fascism still held power, nonetheless he provides a template for thinking, studying and critique in difficult circumstances. He had a vision, he was an intellectual, he had a political purpose. Whether academic nurses in the 21st century find this inspiring or irrelevant may depend on what vision we have for nursing praxis for the future.

 

 

 

Buttigeig J (2011) in Gramsci A (1975) Prison Notebooks. Volume 1 Ed. Einaudi G. Columbia University Press. New York.

 

Furedi F (2006) Where have all the intellectuals gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism. Continuum.

 

Gramsci A. (1975) Prison Notebooks. Vos 1-3. Edited Einaudi G. Columbia University Books New York.

 

Scambler G (2013) What is an intellectual? http://www.grahamscambler.com/what-is-an-intellectual-2/

 

Streeck W (2016) The post-capitalist interregnum: the old system is dying, but a new social order cannot yet be born. Juncture 23 (2): 68-77

Manifesto

 

This manifesto calls for a social movement for political activism by nurses and other health professionals, to address inequalities in health and the social inequalities that highly structure, but do not determine, health outcomes. This action can operate at individual, clinical, organisational, national and international level.

Our aim is to respond to threats to health and socialised health service delivery from corporate, financial and political interests.

Our vision is for decreasing social and health inequalities in which the social gradient is greatly diminished.

Our goal is to create a networked social movement involving political and civic activism to bring critical understanding and action into the public sphere.

See:

A Manifesto for Action Nursing

Poverty Privilege and Health

In two of the richest nations ever to have existed on planet earth we have a separation which allows affluent whites to exist in a bubble of privilege; a bubble of privilege which survives the shooting of police, deindustrialisation, poverty, precarity and the social gradient in health. Privilege understands and sees how radical losers exploit poverty and exclusion, but does not want to address social and economic structures; privilege understands that pain and anger can be turned both inward and outward but looks for solutions in the individual and ‘security’; privilege sees the transmission of poverty and exclusion only in the personal agency of the poor themselves.

Washington Heights is a suburb of the most segregated city in America. Charles lives in a part of Milwaukee where the residents are 99% white, yet a few blocks up are black neighbourhoods where shops are boarded up, many houses have repossession notices on their front doors, and the air is one of decay and poverty. The separation of black and white in Milwaukee is replicated in big cities right across the US, and separation breeds a lack of empathy.”

“Local authorities which report the highest rates of people facing severe and multiple disadvantage are mainly in the North of England, seaside towns and certain central London boroughs”

“Women who live in the least deprived parts of Kensington & Chelsea can expect almost a quarter of a century more of good health than their female counterparts in the most deprived part of the borough. For females at birth, the number of years an individual could expect to live in good health based on current rates – known as healthy life expectancy – differed by an average of 24.6 years between the most and least deprived parts of the borough” (ONS, 2015)

…and yet politicians like to focus on a ‘moral underclass’, blaming them for their behaviour that causes poverty. Drink and drugs are key factors in this regard:

“Ian Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, shocked readers of the Daily Mail with: ‘Addicts and alcoholics cost us £10billion a year, says Duncan Smith: Blitz launched to help people with drink drug problems find work’ “. (Glen Bramley LSE Blog)

There is a very old debate about whether poor people owe their circumstances to structural economic factors or to moral/behavioural failings. Sandra Carlisle in 2001 argued that there are ‘contested explanations, shifting discourses and ambiguous policies’  for health inequalities: there is the ‘Moral Underclass’ discourse, the ‘Social Integrationist’ Discourse and the ‘Redistrubutive’ discourse. Each has its own explanation as to why there are inequalities and then what to do about them.

Since Sandra Carlisle wrote her paper, there has been a a good deal of evidence to suggest that structural/economic forces are a major factor in people’s health and illness. There is some evidence also of ‘transmitted poverty‘ due to adverse childhood experiences. The misuse of Alcohol and Illegal substances (they are all drugs) are of course correlated:

“There is a huge overlap between the offender, substance misusing and homeless populations. For example, two thirds of people using homeless services are also either in the criminal justice system or in drug treatment in the same year”.

Many people faced with adverse social situations learn to cope, or they become fatalistic,  or they cling together in supportive communities or they become activists fighting for social justice.  Some self harm, some drink to excess, some go to University and become doctors or lawyers or politicians.  They exercise their personal agency and succeed or fail within structurally determined circumstances. They succeed, despite not because of, the activities and ideology of the privileged. A few of the successful however, then refuse to provide more ladders while shouting “I did it so can you”.

The lack of empathy, the total separation of lifeworlds, arises partly from moral intuitions that both blinds many politicians and commentators to alternative explanations pf poverty and binds them together in a bubble of privilege that prevents them from analysing the evidence. As we all do, they engage in post hoc rationalisations – in their case that that the poor are a moral underclass who are less intelligent, lazy, and hard working than the successful – to explain and justify their own positions.  This is almost a moral imperative, because not to blame the poor opens one up to the need to justify or critique the structural and economic privileges one has unequal access to. Placing the focus on the work, drinking and drug taking habits of a ‘moral underclass’ provides one with a sense of superiority and entitlement so much on show in both US and UK politics. No doubt the same occurs in Russia and China. To acknowledge that there are structural and economic conditions, for example the public school system or the service sector low wage economies,  or the inverse care law, opens up the middle class to accusations of champagne socialism.

This is a common tactic to deflect the argument away from an examination of causes to one of ‘ad hominem’.  Another tactic is to argue that the best way to address structural and economic factors is more of the same economic policies that have held sway especially in the US and UK. Indeed on a global scale the numbers of people living in absolute poverty is decreasing. Inequality is also decreasing with in the UK (gini coefficient). However these two factors are not the only issue.  Both the UK and the US are rich and other measures of inequality have increased, see for example the use of the Palma ratio. It matters greatly for very poor people to get incomes, and mortality rates, enjoyed by the poor in the UK and the US, but that is not enough as the social, health and political problems in both countries testify.

Privilege looks around and is satisfied knowing that the ‘have nots’ only have themselves to blame. They reach for the moral underclass theory and publish it relentlessly in their newspapers and commentary. They also have the wealth and political power to ensure this ideology is accepted by the poor themselves. However, many do not. In this context:

The losers get sick.

The losers get poor.

The losers get defeated.

The losers get mad.

The losers get even.

‘Many professions take losers as the object of their studies and as the basis for their existence. Social psychologists, social workers, nurses, doctors, social policy experts, criminologists, therapists and others who do not count themselves among the losers would be out of work without them. But with the best will in the world, their clients remains obscure to them: their empathy knows clearly-defined professional bounds’ (Enzensberger 2005). Enzensberger (2005) goes on to argue:

‘one thing is certain: the way humanity has organized itself – “capitalism”, “competition”, “empire”, “globalisation” – not only does the number of losers increase every day, but as in any large group, fragmentation soon sets in. In a chaotic, unfathomable process, the cohorts of the inferior, the defeated, the victims separate out. The loser may accept his fate and resign himself; the victim may demand satisfaction; the defeated may begin preparing for the next round. But the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion, saves his energy, and waits for his hour to come’.

Shoots a Policeman, drives a truck through a crowd, blows himself up in an airport…..all the while privilege looks on in dumb uncomprehending horror calling for more security and economic crackdowns on the moral underclass upon whom the often middle class radical loser preys.

Hunt’s agenda

The ideology of health care provision.

 

 

Amid the junior doctors strike of 2016, the health secretary Jeremy Hunt was embroiled in a conflict with the BMA over doctors’ contracts designed to address a 7day NHS. This is the surface issue but sits upon a deeper ideological conflict, one that many of the doctors will be unaware of but will suspect, especially if they have read Alysson Pollock’s works on the privatisation and corporatisation of the NHS. Hunt argued he has a ‘mandate’ to introduce a 7 day NHS and perhaps realises that if this policy cannot be introduced, the balance of power over the future of the NHS will swing back towards the BMA and other health professional groups. The irony is that the BMA opposed the introduction of the NHS back in 1948 but now is one of the strongest supporters. Since 2012 however, the NHS has been dismantled and been replaced with privatised and corporatized service provision, with ‘patient choice’ and ‘patient safety’ being used as the ideological veil which masks the corporate face. People have not noticed this detail because so far ‘free at the point of delivery’ is still in place, but this principle, along with universal and comprehensive cover, is under threat. The government remain the almost monopoly purchaser of health services on our behalf but for how long? The care home crisis points in the direction of travel. This will be withdrawal of state funding and reliance on private provision which will not be ‘free at the point of delivery’.

 

 

 

In 2005 ‘Direct Democracy – an agenda for a new model party’ was published, the authors include the current health secretary Jeremy Hunt. It is not government policy and does not represent the full range of conservative views. The Tory party itself is home to those of a ‘one nation’ persuasion who mix ideas of ‘noblesse oblige’ with a modicum of a social welfare, safety net, public service ethos. It is also home to ‘neoliberalism’ rooted in anti State sentiment based on freedom of the individual and free market economics. This ideology can be clearly seen in the 2012 book ‘Britannia Unchained – Global lessons for growth and prosperity’ which argues for further free market economics based on a bonfire of employment laws. The book suggests:

 

“The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music.”

 

This one quote conveys the disdain neoliberals have in general for those less well paid, less “successful” and less powerful than themselves. Boris Johnson’s speech in 2013 on the impossibility of equality being based on differences in IQ, implied some people are too stupid to get ahead. This individualises issues, while ignoring structures of class, gender, ethnicity and privilege. He said:

 

And for one reason or another – boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and god-given talent of boardroom inhabitants – the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever. I stress: I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.”

 

Two ideas are core here: that the working class and the poor are so because they are more lazy and stupid than the ruling class, and that the answer to this is to increase competition and to use inequality as incentives for personal improvement. Of course said like that to the electorate, it would seriously threaten voter support. Instead the discourse of market efficiency, effectiveness and choice is used to justify privatization and corporatization of public services. The message to the public is clear: take responsibility for education, health, social care and housing. It is down to individuals and families to provide by working hard and being prudent.

 

The arguments over the NHS have to be seen within this wider context. At heart, many in the current Tory party viewed the state run NHS as anathema. As such they have succeeded in dismantling the post war structure of the NHS following the Health and Social Care Act 2012. This allowed for private providers to bid for the provision of health services but keeps in place, for now, principles such as ‘free at the point of delivery’.

 

According to Alysson Pollock, the Health and Social Care Act 2012:

 

  1. Removed the duty of the Secretary of State for health to secure and provide health care for all.
  2. Introduced US style insurance schemes.
  3. Gives the secretary of state legal powers to create a market, allows providers to pick and choose which patients will get care, services to be provided and what will be charged for.

 

A market has been introduced into health service delivery, and markets operate through risk selection and appraisal resulting in fragmentation of provision. That is to say a market provider needs to pick and choose which patients are profitable in competition with other providers. We now have clinical commissioning groups modelled on insurance based lines. Those with high risk or multiple needs will be expensive to provide care for.

 

The ‘NHS’ is now fragmented in which:

 

  1. Services are broken up and put out to tender to commercial companies.
  2. Commercial shareholders have new legal powers to decide who gets care, what the get and what they pay for.

 

This current state of affairs is not enough for neoliberal thought. So what is the vision of this group of neoliberal Tories? How did this happen?

 

Direct Democracy argues:

 

“Several other countries operate political systems based on localism and direct democracy. Two outstanding examples – one much smaller than the United Kingdom and one many times larger – are Switzerland and the United States. In their different ways, both states respect the principles of the dispersal of power, the direct election of public officials and the use of the referendum as a legislative tool. Our proposals for the devolution of power directly to the citizen – notably in the fields of education and health care – have also been successfully trialled abroad, often in unlikely places. No less corporatist a state than Sweden has introduced a form of school voucher, while almost every state in Europe, at least since the fall of the Berlin Wall, now provides for an element of health insurance”.

 

This goes to the heart of the matter, note how the US and the Swiss are held up as models. The principles of localism and direct democracy are invoked as justifications hiding their argument and belief about market mechanisms. The United States is a beacon for the dispersal of power? One cannot expect anything other than this nonsense from neoliberals, wilfully ignorant as they surely must be of the work of C Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse, Jurgen Habermas, David Harvey, Thomas Picketty, Graham Scambler, and Yanis Varoufakis? This also ignores the literature on social inequalities and inequalities in health and the social and political determinants of health. At this point we must also point to the wealth of feminist and post-colonial literature on ‘power’. In short it is an invocation of bourgeois patriarchal perspective on the exercise of power which blinds them to actuality.

 

As for Switzerland, the OECD reports that compared to the UK’s 9.3 % of GDP, the Swiss pay 11.4%. The UK used to pay under 6% but has seen a rise, not totally due to actual health spending but to cater for administration and profit for private companies. The US spends 16.9% (OECD 2014) and has introduced ‘Obama care’ to address the plight of uninsured americans. Obama care is an outcome of class struggle which has been hotly contested in the ‘land of the free’.

 

 

 

‘Direct Democracy’ claims to hold to three principles:

 

  1. Decisions should be taken as closely to the people they affect.
  2. Law makers should be directly accountable.
  3. The citizen should enjoy maximum freedom from state control.

 

 

On the face of it who would argue with that? Certainly not anarchists, socialists or libertarians. The problem is that these principles exist within a social and historical context, one characterised by imbalances of power along class, gender and ethnic lines and this cannot deal with the reality on the ground. Hunt et al are blind to the context in which ‘men of wealth buy men of power’, a world in which the capitalist class executive and the political power elite exercise a new class/command dynamic which neoliberal ‘reforms’ ushered in since about the 1980’s especially in the US and UK.

 

Yanis Varoufakis (2016) clearly discusses the effects of such things as the “Nixon Shock’ on the post war global financial settlement, the outcome being that the ‘strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’. Global health corporations need new markets and looked to the UK’s NHS as a source of rich pickings. This is the context in which Hunt’s bourgeois democracy operates.

 

  • Decisions about who provides health care, what health care looks like and where it is provided are taken by unelected clinical commissioning groups operating within a profit driven market context.
  • Patients do not have an electable secretary of state who has a statutory obligation to provide health care services.
  • Freedom from state control for health service provision has morphed into control via corporate decision making.

 

 

Direct Democracy (2005) argues:

 

‘The problem with the NHS is not one of resources. Rather it is the system remains centrally run, state monopoly designed over half a century ago’ (p74).

 

Clearly this is a statement that ‘the system’ needs to go. The resource issue in the context of increasing demands and costs is brushed aside. This remark now looks questionable at best in 2016.

 

“We should fund patients either through the tax system or by way of universal insurance, to purchase health care from the provider of their choice. Those without means would have their contributions supplemented or paid for by the State.” (p74).

 

Holding on to a notion of ‘free at the point of delivery’ implied here, it is clear that private provision is to be introduced. The language is anodyne, context free, taking no notice of what private provision might look like, who would provide it and what the consequences of the inevitability of a market might be. The State at least has a role in providing for the poor. The writers of this document are part of the political power elite, or may wish to be, and the coherence of interests with the corporate/capitalist class executive are hidden. Those who sell insurance have not been lobbying for this change then? A bit of research into who benefits from this change might prove insightful. Are there links between corporate interest and the politicians who are driving the changes?

 

Hunt et al feared the NHS would only be second to the US in terms of % of GDP spent. This has not occurred. They report a study ranking the UK 18 of 19 countries. This is selective in the extreme, and is now way out of date.

 

Many of the critiques they evoke of the NHS are a result of the rise of new public management, or ‘managerialism, introduced into the system by previous governments both New Labour and Tory. For about three decades managerial control, targets and distrust of professionals have eroded the ability of the NHS to be the best in the world.  The judgment about the efficiency and effectiveness of health services partly depends on what criteria are being used to judge them. The % spend of GDP is a crude figure as it hides a plethora of costs and profits.

 

Other measures of success could include universality of access, comprehensiveness of cover, mortality and morbidity outcomes, and the publics’ safety and satisfaction.

 

Mark Britnall has written ‘In search of the Perfect Health System’ (2015) of the complexity of comparing health systems. Britnall is no Tory ideologue and describes his approach as more brown mud than blue sky thinking:

 

He also wrote in 2011 before the 2012 Act:

 

“[o]f course, the vast majority of care – quite rightly in the UK context – will always be provided by public sector organisations (currently, about 95% of it) and will be paid out of taxation” and “[t]he issue of competition, which now seems to be conflated with privatisation, is unhelpful and misleading and, at best, only a small part of reform. Competition can exist without privatisation and the NHS can maintain its historic role in funding care while dealing with a richer variety of providers – public sector, social enterprise and private organisations”.

 

This 2011 comment predated the 2012 Act and can be seen as a statement of intent than actuality on his part. In 2010 there was some controversy over his statements in the US about private provision.

 

One area in which private provision is facing severe challenges is the care home sector.

 

Roy Lilley, writes a daily blog, and has considerable experience in the health service and with private sector organisations. He is no left wing radical. He writes in ‘They don’t matter’ (3rd May 2016) that success in private provision in the community has been ‘patchy’, citing Circle’s loss of £5 million and the paying of another £2 million to get out of the Hinchinbrooke contract, while SERCO and Bupa ‘bailed out’ of provision leaving Virgin clinging on. He argues that the private sector can be nimble and quick to adapt, but of course needs to make a profit.

 

However, the largest care home provider, Four Seasons, is in talks to ‘restructure its debt’ as they face a 39% drop in profits. Most of their ‘customers’ have their fees paid by social services. This amounts to some local authorities paying £385 per week which is just not enough. The living wage is also an issue for them, they have over 30,000 staff but with no way of adjusting prices to pay for the increase and with no operating surplus. It has a debt of £510 million. If Four Seasons go broke they have 450 care homes at risk.

 

The bottom line is that health and social care costs money. There is not enough money in the system to pay for the care required. Some private families are paying £1,250 per week. Company Watch data which covers 20,000 homes, indicates that there is a funding black hole of half a billion pounds. This is market failure due to inadequate funding by design. It is almost as if the government is deliberately forcing people to find the money themselves either through savings, insurance or property while state funding through local authorities is slowly wound down.

 

Mark Britnall’s approach is scholarly, based in experience managing health care organisations and a deep knowledge and overview of many health systems. However, is Britnall sufficiently aware of the political economy of neoliberalism and its agenda for health?  Roy Lilley’s highlighting of the care home crisis clearly shows the political, austerity driven nature of the issue.

 

‘Direct Democracy’ and ‘Britannia Unchained’ are ideological approaches to health and social care. Whether Hunt has the temper for addressing Britnall’s insights or whether he still stands by the document he co-wrote is anyone’s guess. However, I know where the smart money would go. His face down of the doctors is more to do with power and who exercises it rather than the future of the health service as we knew it. If the neoliberals can get away with it, then free at the point of delivery will be severely challenged perhaps using spurious arguments stigmatising drug users, alcoholics, smokers, the obese, self harmers, self inflicted sports injuries, prostitutes, the promiscuous and Johnson’s ‘stupid’ as a wedge driven between the deserving and the undeserving ill. The care home crisis indicates that older people are ignored and the costs increasingly privatised as the state withdraws, or should we say abdicates, support. The NHS was to socialise risk, to spread its cost across the whole population. Instead we are rapidly moving towards individualising risk and private insurance based provision as the state withers away.

 

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