From the archive: “Brainwashing under freedom” [on the role of think tanks]
Yesterday, Nick Pearce from IPPR suggested in a Guardian blog that Labour should ‘drop its child poverty target’ and new measures should ‘take into account the fiscal realities we now face.‘ One of his proposals included ‘freezing child benefit in cash terms for a decade’ to ‘free up £2.5bn a year to invest in quality childcare services’ which is quite staggering, coming as it does from ‘the UK’s leading progressive think-tank’.
We blogged a couple of weeks ago about what the economic – or in this case fiscal – reality actually is and we have also highlighted the role of other think tanks (usually the CSJ) in developing policies – or ‘trailing them’ as part of a ‘market testing exercise’ – for political parties. Ruth Levitas called this ‘the privatization of policy making’ in her book The Inclusive Society? and suggested that think-tanks, including IPPR:
‘enable public response to policy options to be tested without directly implicating – or at least without committing – the party itself….Moreover think-tanks and their staff are neither elected nor accountable, and Labour’s think-tanks and the networks around them, while sometimes claiming openness, in fact, had at their core a small, self-selected, largely metropolitan and disproportionately male elite.’ (p30, 1998)
Whenever, I hear about the fiscal or economic ‘constraints’ we have to accept or that ‘we now face’ I am always reminded of Bourdieu’s concept of doxa (‘the naturalization of arbitrariness’ or ‘the world of tradition experienced as a “natural world” and taken for granted’) and how ‘the specifically symbolic power to impose the principles of the construction of reality – in particular, social reality – is a major dimension of political power‘ (pp164-165, 2002). Similarly, whenever I hear someone from a think-tank, supported by the media, discussing these issues and supporting the thesis that we don’t have any alternative, I am reminded of his idea of doxosophers, ‘intellectuals of the political-administrative establishment’ (Pearce is ‘a former No 10 adviser under Gordon Brown, (who) remains highly influential in the Labour party’ according to an accompanying article in The Guardian) who:
Locked in the narrow, short-term economism of the IMF worldview which is also causing havoc, and will continue to do so, in North-South relations, all these half-wise economists fail, of course, to take account of the real costs, in the short and more especially the long term, of the material and psychological wretchedness which is the only certain outcome of the economically legitimate Realpolitik
Referring to the centre of the state apparatus as the right hand and front line worker as the left hand, Bourdieu goes on to argue that ‘the right hand, obsessed by the question of financial equilibrium, knows nothing of the problems of the left hand, confronted with the often very costly social consequences of ‘budgetary restrictions’.
Drawing on the work of Bourdieu, and of particular relevance to the comments made by Nick Pearce, Stabile and Morooka discuss doxosophers as ‘those intellectuals – academic and non-academic alike – who traffic only in the most superficial of debates and whose primary function is to comment on representations as if they were real‘ (original emphasis). and ‘these intellectuals provide justifications for neo-liberal policies by dressing them up as scientific, progressive and even inevitable’ (my emphasis) (pp.328-329, 2010)
Chomsky highlighted how, through ‘brainwashing under freedom’, ‘the critics, or at least, the “responsible critics” make a major contribution to the cause by bounding the debate within certain limits’ and that by presenting a range of debate within a narrow framework, ‘the debate only enhances the strength of assumptions, ingraining them in people’s minds as the entire possible spectrum of opinion that there is.’ (p.13, 2003)
It is, in my view, unseemly that a supposedly progressive think-tank should consider freezing child benefit for 10 years (see this report by CPAG who spoke to people living on low-incomes about how they used Child Benefit – did IPPR do this before formulating their policy?) and suggest that the child poverty target should be moved back and is ‘now all but impossible to meet’. There are plenty of alternative ways to end child poverty without ‘dropping the target’ (which, it should be remembered, is a legally binding commitment, although you wouldn’t think it) or moving the date back, but politicians and their ‘reassuring entourage of young technocrats’, as Bourdieu called them, are not prepared to discuss them, producing a doxic society.
It appears that the ‘truce on inequality’ that Peter Townsend wrote about over fifty years ago is still holding very firm indeed.
Best wishes, Steve
*If anyone would like the full references for the quotations used above, please let me know.*
Courtesy of Stephen Crossley at the North East Child Poverty Commission
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