“We’re all in this together!”
Here, we are often told, is another of those Orwellian ‘newspeak’ phrases that is both vacuous and reassuring at the same time. A meaningless statement, it is said, since it is either a statement of the blindingly obvious (we all share the same economy – as winners or losers), or a falsehood (in what sense does a single mother living in a B&B share an implied common interest with Richard Branson or George Osborne? A bully and his victim ‘share’ the experience of bullying – they are both ‘in it’ together.
Well – okay. But I think there’s a lot more to it than this. There is a sense in which the phrase speaks a chilling truth. Spoken by David Cameron or a US equivalent I hear this as a menacing warning.
Because modern economics has developed – mainly on the basis of the expansion of consumerism – such that we all have a direct interest in the welfare of the wealthy and the powerful. Our money is invested in or owed to banks, financial institutions and wealthy individuals – in an immediate personal sense (mortgages, pensions, university debts), but also in the aggregate sense that 80% of our economy now rests on currency speculation, both domestic and international. But remember, also, that many of our essential services (power, water, infrastructure, health, schools) have bee sold off to the corporate sector. They fail, so do we. They trip up, it’s we who break a bone. We have so skewed our economy away from material production to consumer services that we, as the working core of the economy, have little of a power base. We have to buy-in to the power base of the banks and businesses to stay afloat in a globalised economy. I’d say we are, indeed, ‘all in this together’. I suspect, too, that here lies the source of the erosion of class differences.We don’t see our wellbeing in tension with that of wealthy people – but overlapping.
This is, perhaps, the greatest accomplishment of capitalism – whatever its strengths and weaknesses. It has co-opted the poor and the middle classes into the realm of interests of the wealthy and corporate power. Their interests have become ours. This is nowhere more evident than in the election of business-men governments in Italy: Berlusconi, of course, but after him, in 2011, Prime Minister Monti appointed a cabinet made up exclusively of businessmen and economic scientists – with the backing of the European Commission. Trump with his aggressive continuation of government inviting Goldman Sachs, other bankers and corporate leaders into leading political positions, is the most recent and virulent form of this tendency. Not only do we share the financial interests of the wealthy, we also invested in them as our political representatives, ruling on matters well beyond economics and reaching into the heart of our social life.
There is a footnote to this rather obvious observation, and it concerns my own professional peers – the social research community. Where do they fall in this game of ‘circulating elites’ (see my Blog on Trump and circulating elites:
This is for a Blog of its own – but here’s the thumbnail sketch. The social research community discovered its base in universities which, under a system known as ‘dual funding’, gave researchers protection and independence. ‘Dual’ funding meant that researchers received their money for investigations as part of their salary, but also in the form of competitive grants from politically independent bodies outside – mostly, the Research Councils. Of course, the salary element was the secure bit – no matter what pressures you were under from politicians and research sponsors, you were assured of the funds to continue – and to continue your research career. Well, universities have long-since been commercialised and Research Councils politicised – to the point where neither can tolerate political risks. Researchers are exposed to pressures of all kinds – sometimes, to alter their findings or suppress reports – or simply to limit the questions they raise to those preferred by their sponsors. I was under just such pressure when the Teacher Training Agency (as was) asked my university to discipline me for insisting on the publication of a report they did not like. The teacher Training Agency was an important sponsor of the university’s education department. This is a serious and little discussed erosion of democracy.
What this means is that social researchers are biddable. Their mortgages depend on that – not to speak of lucrative careers and the chance of small-town fame. I have succumbed to some of that. So we see social researchers cosying close to government administration, generating theories that support the drift of government policies. Examples would include economists developing austerity-legitimising theory; educational researchers developing theories legitimising testing of small children, authoritarian school management and a ‘stick-and-carrot’ approach to learning and behaviour; and public health researchers producing theories that, first, support the institutionalisation of mental disorder, and, as the policy changes, support the closure of mental health institutions and the ‘assimilation’ of people with serious mental disorders into ‘the community’. It includes psychologists developing ‘rat-in-a-maze’ theories of ‘nudging’ and ‘family behavioural change’; neuroscientists and geneticists proposing theories such as that behaviour is mechanised by genes and that brain development can be engineered by teaching methods. There are the ‘Place Theorists’ – some of whom underpin the dismantling and commercialisation of social services.
All of these approaches, if not designed to give rise to experimental policies – which they sometimes do – follow the determination of a policy to legitimate it and secure the funds that inevitably flow in policy’s wake. In one especially stark and troubling instance, Ellen Lagermann shows in some detail how, in the 1920s and 1930s, theories of school testing emerged after school administrators had bought into the use of tests for social and academic stratification.
The ideas follow the money.
So – here’s the point. We are co-opted into the agenda and interests of the wealthy and the corporate elite. We are asked to admire the sporting and business élan of public sector predators headed by Richard Branson – but also to invest our hopes in them. The wellbeing of the Stock Markets – the market for transactions that, essentially, ease the flow of money from the relatively less-well-off to the relatively better-off – is regularly fed to us by the Aaron Hezehursts and Sally Bundocks as though it were our own wellbeing…oh! the surge of a ‘plus’ and the ebb of a ‘minus’! The journalists, by and large, are just as co-opted. But, okay, we are subject to many forces appealing to our loyalty, and we have come to expect our journalists to be somewhat less than impartial. But we depend on the independence of research to nurture our judgement, and when they, too, are ‘in this together’ – what’s left? To whom do we turn for independent advice, for an impartial view, for a check-and-balance against the single narrative?