Quantum Subjectivity – Understanding the Dual Consciousness of David Cameron by Joe Crawford (University of St Andrews)

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In September, Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to Oxfordshire County Council to ask what more they could do to ameliorate the very cuts that his government has imposed across the country as part of its never-ending-austerity programme.   The irony of this needs no further elaboration.

I wish to use this blog post to propose three possible explanations for David Cameron’s actions.

The first and most simple explanation is that the man known as ‘Call me Dave’ is a ‘liberal’ in the general (and worst) sense of the term.  Among a great many other problems, the liberal condition has a very strong tendency to decouple all that is inextricably linked while aligning all that is disparate.  For example, on one level (say, the liberal myth of meritocracy) there is no ‘perceived’ connection between rich and poor in the sense that the existence of one has no ‘obvious or visible’ determining effect on the existence of the other (rich people are seen as being talented and hardworking, poor people are lazy and feckless).  Yet in another sense liberalism aligns a diverse range of people (with vastly uneven and unequal volumes of economic and cultural capital) with politically motivated rhetorical sound bites such as ‘we are all in this together’, ‘we all need to tighten our belts; or ‘we should all pay our fair share’…etc.  Dave has himself produced a very useful example by recently decoupling any connection between the rise of ISIS and western military intervention in Iraq, and by aligning disparate groups of people who oppose the bombing of Syria under the broad rubric of ‘terrorist sympathisers’.  This is what liberal politicians, journalists and academics have a strong tendency to do, they decouple all that is linked and align all that is disparate.  So, in his letter to Oxfordshire council, Dave seems to have decoupled any link between his own party’s austerity measures and the cuts being made to his local council services and aligned the government, local and county councils and the public in sharing responsibility for the task of doing all they can to lessen the impact of the cuts (which his government is responsible for imposing).

The second explanation for understanding this situation revolves around the notion that Cameron is exercising a form of ‘cynical practice’ (see Crawford and Flint 2015).  This form of cynicism arises when professionals (often public sector managers) are all too aware of the distance between the reality (what can realistically happen) and the mask they wear in public (the pretence they wish to promote), yet still insist on wearing the mask (despite everyone’s acknowledgement of the distance between the two).  Carlen’s (2008: 20) example is useful’

For while ‘everyone knows’ that the chief inspector was only ‘doing his job’, ‘everyone else knows’ that in-prison programmes and decent regimes are almost certainly not in themselves going to reduce offending…So why lose credibility (or your promotion, or even your job if you are a prison officer or a prison governor) by continuing to say what everyone else always and already knows?

Perhaps then, since Cameron knows that austerity is a political rather than economic programme, his letter to Oxfordshire council could well be a cynical ploy.  He knows what he’s doing but pretends he doesn’t know.  Dave could be playing a double bluff.

Thirdly, there is what I’ve decided to call ‘quantum subjectivity’ a concept similar to the psychological  notion of ‘cognitive dissonance’ but without there being too much ‘dissonance’ involved.  Quantum subjectivity arises when an agent harbours two (mostly contradictory) positions on the same subject.  The position which emerges depends almost entirely on the situation within which the agent finds him/herself.  We don’t know a person’s position  until we engage them, an activity which always takes place within a context, located within both social and physical space.

Think Schrodinger’s cat.  Is it alive?  Is it dead?  Until you look (thus pinning it down to one state or the other) it is both at the same time.  A quantum particle can be in two places simultaneously, only once you pin it down (by observing it), does it provide its location.  In sociological terms, what a person ‘thinks’ is often determined, not by their social position (as classical sociology might suggest), but by the situation in which they find themselves when they are ‘pinned down’ to having to express an opinion.  My own research provides useful examples.  When discussing eviction practices with housing professionals, they would freely alternate between structural and individual discourses depending on the context. On one hand they would adopt a position in which structural factors played the most significant role in the causes of rent arrears (the problem was collectivised and therefore depersonalised), and in another context would adopt a position quite the opposite of that, where it was the irresponsible behaviour of the tenant which was the issue (the problem is then individualised and thoroughly personalised).  So, in short, the same professionals, from the same offices, oscillated between the same binary frames in order to deal with the contradictions contained within the practice of evicting tenants.  Quantum subjectivity, it seems, allows professionals to deal with the inherent contradictions, political tensions, and moral ambiguities which have come to characterise modern ‘public service’ provision in the UK.

The ‘quantum subjectivity’ explanation suggests that David Cameron’s position on austerity is determined by the situation in which he finds himself.  When Dave is at home, in Oxfordshire, drinking tea in the garden with his wife and children, the effects of the cuts to his local services appear to him to be so severe, he is compelled to write to the council to ask why more cannot be done to reduce their impact.  When David Cameron is in Parliament, surrounded by his Bullingdon Club chums, all braying like donkeys, manically waving their order papers as they ridicule and berate those in opposition, the government’s austerity programme seems the most sensible policy for dealing with problems, the real impact of which David Cameron appears to know absolutely nothing about.

Two entirely different positions.

Two entirely different worlds.

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Pictures [from David Cameron’s (Tenant’s) special relationship with Scotland] are published with kind permission from Greg Moodie

 

By Joe Crawford (University of St Andrews)

 

The Rentier and the Lumpen by Basak Tanulku (Independent researcher based in Istanbul)

This blog post will discuss the logic and the factors behind the current dual class structure, characterised by increasing lower and upper classes and declining middle classes. In this class structure, the upper and the lower classes, i.e. the rentier and the lumpen tend to have similar aspirations of speculation and consumption. From a psychological approach, the relationship between the lower, upper and middle classes can fit into a Freudian framework of id, superego and ego. In this framework, id corresponds to the animal inside a person, which needs to be satisfied, like sexual libido, hunger and thirst. Superego is the human part above all, corresponding to the narcissistic personality, which sees the self above everything and separates the good from the bad. Ego is in between the two, the suppressed part of the human personality. In this current society, superego is the rentier, free to do anything; id is the lumpen, who is unable to control basic instincts and to be satisfied; and ego is those in the middle, pushed from all sides, living in constant debasement. In this context, it can be argued that the rentier (the superego) and the lumpen (the id) vote for the same political parties, and share the same political and ideological ambitions and sexual fantasies. However, the ego, those in the middle, is pushed from both sides, envied and debased at the same time:  ridiculed for being ordinary and conservative and isolated from mainstream life because of the power of the new rich and other parasitic forms of life that are seen to deserve the high life as the result of their material and symbolic wealth.

How have we ended up here? This psychosocial context fits into the political economy, which emerged in the 1980s, all over the world. This era has many names, such as “neoliberal”, “consumer”, or “global”, along with many more beginning with a “post-” prefix, although all these terms may have alternative meanings in different theoretical paradigms. During this period, particularly the developed countries restructured their economies through post-industrialisation, and shifted to service-based economies in which innovation and high technology became very important for any economy to be considered successful and competitive. The membership of the conventional working class has declined due to the impact of outsourced production to developing countries, a process accelerated by “globalisation”. In this process, the conventional working classes have transformed into people dependent on ‘ready’ money which prevented them from forming class consciousness. This led to the erosion of class solidarity among them, and the decline of trade unions and class-based politics. The offspring of the working classes became stigmatised through terms such as “benefit scroungers”, “chav”s or “asbo”s, which refer to the underclass or lumpen, or people with neither class consciousness nor solidarity who live in an era of consumption, celebrities, football superstars and tabloid newspapers. They become symbolised through long-term unemployment, low levels of education, and an attitude towards life which can be summarised as “no future”. Their situation is legitimised by political actors and those who profit from such a political context. In this new class structure, the conventional middle classes have also experienced a decline both in numbers and prestige, best represented by public sector workers stigmatised for their perceived “non-job” jobs. Their declining status corresponds to a declining sensitivity towards accumulation and planning for the future, since a more differentiated consumer market with many products necessitated a throwaway society, with an apathetic attitude towards the environment, people and the future. The middle classes correspond to an ordinary, conventional and boring way of life, restricted in 9-to-5 work shifts and two-up two-down households consisting of a married couple with two children and pets.

However, there are also the winners of this new economic system. Despite their small numbers in the workforce, they had a high social status and important symbolic power in society: they are the “new middle classes”, i.e. people working in financial, real estate or various service or creative sectors. Within the new middle classes, new groups emerged, such as “yuppies”, “bohos”, and “hipsters”. Their lifestyle is characterised by an urban buzz around nice neighbourhoods, independent cafes, boutiques, small restaurants, art centres, and luxurious retail, residential and business complexes. At the same time, the “new rich” emerged, corresponding to a lifestyle characterised by spending sprees, luxury brands, and seven-star hotels in cities like London, New York, Istanbul, and Dubai, which created by world-known architects became highly standardised. The new rich create money out of thin air and can be regarded as ‘rentiers’, people who derive income primarily from speculation.

These changes have created a more polarised and unequal class structure. However, many have become fascinated by the power of money and lifestyles of celebrities. And in this context, there is a symbiotic relationship between rentier (the upper classes or superegos) and the lumpen (the lower classes or the ids). In this relationship, the rentier eats most of the cake made of easy money based on a principle of profit. Meanwhile, the lumpen lives with a hope of one day catching up with the status of rentier. This continuous hope, fueled by the promise of continued consumption, kills the lumpen day by day without them ever noticing. In this relationship, while the rentier is free to do anything they want behind closed doors, the lumpen feels free to do so in streets. Because of that, we see people who we would never expect to find together in a photograph, such as aristocrats of various ranks, rentiers and celebrities who are regarded as national treasures in their countries.

 

By Basak Tanulku (Independent researcher based in Istanbul)

What’s Not to Like? Misplaced Faith, Ideological Partisanship and the Inflexibility of the Universal Credit Scheme By Tony Manzi, University of Westminster

Having signally failed to capture the public imagination with the idea of the Big Society, the UK Coalition Government has turned its attention to transforming the welfare state through the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act 2012, a key element of which was the introduction of Universal Credit. The justification for this benefit was (in theory) to provide a rational attempt to address the complexity of the welfare system by introducing one easily understandable, comprehensive payment. However, as with all attempts at welfare reform, the devil is in the detail. In this case the detail is proving to be far more problematic than government advisors anticipated (although this could easily have been predicted by anyone with a passing knowledge of the UK benefits system).

The purpose of Universal Credit was to combine six benefits (Income Support, Jobseeker’s Allowance, Working Tax Credit, Child Credit, Employment and Support Allowance and Housing Benefit) into one. This would enable an admittedly vastly complex system to be (at a stroke) simplified and unified through the integration of a single, comprehensive payment. The attractions of such a system were obvious. It would be (in theory) uncontroversial, easy to understand and simple to explain. Provision of a single, integrated personal subsidy would facilitate a more streamlined and transparent welfare service. Launched in 2013, the initiative was a particular passion of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Ian Duncan Smith) who, in preparation for its introduction, undertook extensive study of conditions in a number of deprived areas across the UK. His commitment to the initiative has led Duncan Smith to claim that the project remains ‘on track’ and ‘within budget’ despite repeated delays and virulent criticism from MPs. Full implementation is not expected until 2017 but it is highly unlikely that this timetable will be met. Initial estimates of administration costs of £2.2bn have subsequently been revised (one estimate is that full implementation will cost in the region of £12bn).

Why has government placed such faith in a system that (well before its full introduction) appears severely flawed? A number of explanations can be given (many of which are identified in a 2014 study (King and Crewe – The Blunders of our Governments – Oneworld publications) of earlier policy failures. Firstly, such initiatives rely upon precise technology, promising fast, powerful and efficient communications, resistant to human error. Ministers have been long been attracted to solutions based on IT systems, despite (or because of) their lack of detailed understanding. A further attraction is that their administration can be easily outsourced. However, recent history has shown that assumptions about the efficiency and effectiveness of IT systems are (at the least) highly problematic.

Related to this problem are the ideological assumptions that the private sector is almost always more effective than the public and that welfare provision inevitably leads to dependency. It is not difficult to understand why a benefit system that can be easily comprehended (and just as easily withdrawn) would be so attractive to Ministers. Moreover, the welfare system is particularly vulnerable to the presentation of anecdote as accepted fact and a refusal to consider evidence that undermines core beliefs. Popular assumptions are rarely questioned – the oft-quoted statement of intergenerational worklessness is one example of this partisanship, despite a complete lack of supporting evidence. The process of ‘path dependency’ provides a further explanation for continued faith in the Universal Credit scheme. Considerable time, energy and resources have been exerted in formulating the proposals and failure is therefore inconceivable.

Difficulties in implementation of Universal Credit (even in a small number of ‘pathfinder’ authorities) indicate that these problems will inevitably be intensified when the scheme is ‘rolled out’ across the country. Moreover, forecasts by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that any financial advantages of the scheme are likely to be offset by other tax and benefit changes to produce increases in relative and absolute poverty. There is good reason for the complexity of the contemporary benefits system as it has to deal with the multifaceted circumstances of large numbers of individuals with highly diverse needs. A system that demands simplification, is over-reliant on technological faith, motivated by intellectual prejudice and inflexible in its design, seems almost certainly doomed to failure. However, as we have grown accustomed to witnessing, those responsible will avoid blame and households in the greatest need will suffer the most severe consequences.

Tony Manzi, University of Westminster