The pseudo-science behind the political war on the disabled

It has been a bad week for those on benefits, with George Osborne announcing in his Autumn Statement that benefits will be uprated by less than inflation – in other words, cut in real terms.  Labour is promising to fight these cuts but the pronouncements of both Labour DWP spokesman Liam Byrne and Labour leader Ed Miliband do not exactly fill one with optimism.

People with disabilities have been in the forefront of the attack, and that attack has been reinforced by a narrative that unites all the mainstream players in Westminster politics.  If the cruelty and destructiveness of Coalition policy on benefits is to be exposed and combatted, it is essential that the story is understood.

There’s a detailed and referenced account of that narrative on the Disabled People Against Cuts website.  In summary, the piece indicates how the current approach, using a bio-psychosocial model of disability, is flawed and unsupported by evidence, but, encouraged by private sector organisations that see the potential for profit in carrying out bio-psychosocial assessments of those claiming benefits, has become a de facto orthodoxy.

The authors point out that the approach to disability has shifted from a social approach – one that emphasises to environment and context and sees society’s response to disability as the issue to be addressed – to a so-called bio-psychosocial approach that focuses on the individual and their reaction to the environment.  As the piece points out, it is an approach that can have value in dealing with individuals. But it’s all too obvious how such an approach can be picked up and abused by neoliberals.

Put briefly, the root of the ideological justification comes from the American sociologist Talcott Parsons’ concept of the sick role, which argues that sickness is in essence a form of social deviance, which needs to be policed by medical and other professions.  This is associated with the idea that work is essential to well-being (which is true in the sense that those denied the opportunity for meaningful work suffer mental and physical symptoms); it becomes very easy for neoliberals to conflate these into a doctrine in which you can argue that denying disabled people the ability to live without work is therapeutic (you can also use it to justify the idea of workfare in which benefits are contingent on unpaid work), and of course fits well with populist narratives of workshyness and scrounging.  The scarcity of meaningful jobs in long-term economic depression is not considered by this model).

Into this environment march private companies like ATOS and Unum, with experience of developing assessment regimes with a simple aim – that of reducing the number of people on benefits.  And add to this the recruitment of amateurs like banker Lord Freud, recruited to advise Gordon Brown on benefit reforms and now a Minister in David Cameron’s government; the potential for these companies to present a ready-made pseudo-scientific model to politicians and advisers in need of a quick result; and you have the current mess.  A policy that is obviously failing, but which has the appearance of scientific credibility and which flatters the ideological preconceptions and prejudices of those in power.  It is a subsititution of privately-generated pseudo-evidence – flatpack policy-making, as it were – for real evidence that is all too familiar to observers of how this coalition government conducts itself.

And as the authors of the DPAC piece make clear – this is pseudo-science, in which the work of the academics whose work underpinned the bio-psychosocial model has been misrepresented and distorted for profit by organizations who provide a convenient and potentially popular post-hoc rationalisation for what is the central policy goal – to reduce the amount paid in benefits to the disabled.  Political and media rhetoric, playing to the fears and prejudices of the ignorant, has done an astonishing job of destroying compassion and empathy in modern Britain, but one suspects that even for Tories and Liberal Democrats, stating openly that you want to cut the living standards of the disabled is a step too far.  It is one of the defining characteristics of the neoliberal project that it needs to subvert democracy, because open neoliberalism does not win elections; pseudo-science, like pseudo-economics, is what allows neoliberals to bridge that gap. And it allows the devaluaing of conflicting “expert” opinion.

The point about all of this is that none of it is surprising.  The devaluation of evidence is at the heart of coalition policy; evidence-based policy making is subordinate to ideology and profit.  But the point here is that this is not just a coalition policy; this kind of thinking was becoming mainstream under Labour government and underpinned Labour policy.  It quite obviously informs every pronouncement of Labour’s DWP spokesman Liam Byrne.  And it is one reason why I, for one, am deeply sceptical of Labour’s apparent change of heart on benefits – because I see no evidence that Labour’s underlying rationality has changed.

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