A message to the illiberal Nudge Industry: push off

The ‘politics of the brain’ is a threat to choice, freedom and democracy – which is why spiked is declaring war against it.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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In earlier eras, the revelation that there was a Behavioural Insight Team at the heart of government, dedicated to finding ways to reshape the public’s thoughts, choices and actions, would have caused outrage. It would have brought to mind some of the darker antics of the Soviet Union, which treated certain beliefs as mental illnesses to be fixed, or maybe O’Brien, the torturer in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, who boasts that the human mind is ‘infinitely malleable’.

Yet the news that David Cameron has a Behavioural Insight Team inside Downing Street, and what’s more that it is increasingly influential within the Lib-Con coalition, has been treated as if were a perfectly normal, even admirable thing. Have we lost our minds?

If the distinctive feature of the New Labour government when it came to power in 1997 was its ‘nanny statism’ (not a perfect label for New Labour authoritarianism by any means), then the distinctive feature of politics today is nudge statism – the conviction amongst our leaders that they have both the right and the capacity to invade our brains and reshape how we perceive and interact with the world around us. They refer to it as ‘the politics of the brain’, and everyone from right-leaning supporters of Cameron’s Tories to liberal commentators, from Tory advisers inside Downing Street to trendy young thinkers at the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) who run a sinister-sounding thing called the Social Brain Project, believes the politics of the brain is a good, morally upstanding, workable idea.

They couldn’t be more wrong. And just as spiked was at the forefront of the battle against New Labour’s politics of behaviour for 10 years, so we intend to rally our intellectual troops against the politics of the brain today.

The most shocking thing about the recent reports on Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Team is that nobody has been shocked by them. The existence of a team which, in the words of one Cabinet Office paper, believes that ‘people are sometimes seemingly irrational’ and therefore the state must ‘influence behaviour through public policy’, has been shrugged off or given the nod. The Guardian casually reported that ‘deputy PM Nick Clegg said he believed the team could change the way citizens think’. Criticisms of the ‘Nudge Unit’ (as it is also known) have focused on whether it will really follow through on its promise to clean up the citizenry’s muddled minds. There is ‘little of actual substance’, complained one left-leaning commentator, ‘begging the question [of whether] the Conservatives have wholeheartedly embraced this agenda’. Another hack advised the government that ‘nudges should be deployed sparingly’.

Forget that. The nudge unit should actually be stuck at the very top of the much-discussed bonfire of the quangos. Formally instituted by Cameron in September, the team is made up of people such as David Halpern, former adviser to Tony Blair and co-author of the genuinely freaky Cabinet Office Paper Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy, which comes complete with a cover illustration of the human brain with the words ‘habit’, ‘ego’, ‘priming’ and ‘incentives’ inside it; Paul Dolan, another brain expert; various neuroscientists and psychologists; and external advisers such as Richard Thaler, co-author of the hugely influential book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Wealth, Health and Happiness, from which Cameron and his brain cops derived many of their ideas.

The unit is shot through with social psychology and the new-ish discipline of ‘behavioural economics’, a mish-mash of politics and neuroscience which, as the Mindspace Cabinet Paper points out, has over the past 10 years ‘moved from a fringe activity to one that is increasingly familiar and accepted’. The team’s aim is to find subtle ways to change our behaviour, not through the old, Blair-style bossy approach of telling us what to do, but by offering incentives, by ‘priming’ us with subliminal messaging, by changing the ‘choice architecture’ of our daily lives so that we are influenced, sometimes unconsciously, to behave in what the government considers to be the right way. So flirting with such ideas as a new alcohol labelling system, changing local infrastructure so that we are encouraged (forced?) to walk more frequently, inviting problem gamblers to ban themselves from certain gambling haunts, and offering cash bonuses for healthy behaviour, the nudge unit aims to transform us through some Derren Brown-style mind trickery into the kind of people Cameron might like to hang out with: thin, sober, fit, responsible, boring, braindead.

There are three serious problems with the emerging nudge state. First, it reveals the dramatic downscaling of what politics is about. Once upon a time, the lifeblood of politics was the question of how to create the Good Society. Politics was a struggle over how the world should be shaped or reshaped, and how we might create the conditions in which individuals could realise their potential and pursue their aspirations. Now it’s about remoulding individuals themselves. It’s about finding ways to change how individuals think and behave so that they conform to some preordained, elite-decided view of what a decent person is (booze-free, non-fat, eco-aware). Politics no longer has any macro-visions for society, so instead it aims obsessively to micromanage the way that individuals think.

This trend began under New Labour with the politics of behaviour, where ministers explicitly said they considered it their business to force us to be healthier, more socially active, even happier citizens. The Lib-Cons are taking this politics to a new low by including not only our health and waistlines but also our thoughts and emotions, even our sub-conscious processes, under the remit of the Ministry of Good Behaviour (they don’t actually call it that, but why not?). Bereft of ideas for remaking the world, for boosting and improving society, our leaders take refuge in the brain instead, hoping that they can fiddle with the mental where they cannot get to grips with the social. Controlling individuals’ interaction with the world that currently exists takes the place of what counted for politics for thousands of years, from Aristotle to the Suffragettes: debating how the world should ideally look.

The second problem with the nudge state is that it’s alarmingly illiberal. Built on the idea that individuals are essentially irrational – ‘people are sometimes irrational’, says the Cabinet Office paper; ‘people are often systematically irrational’, prefers the RSA – the elitist politics of the brain treats the mass of the population as not worth seriously engaging with. Indeed its very premise is that we are not rational beings who can be reasoned with, but rather are simply collections of nerve endings and subconscious processes who need to be subjected to a mental MOT.

This is why the proponents of nudgism actively problematise the idea of information, the idea of giving people facts and evidence and political justifications in order that they might make their own decisions. So the Cabinet Office Mindspace report says policymakers have focused too much on providing people with info – about STDs, for example, or climate change – when apparently ‘providing information per se often has surprisingly modest and sometimes unintended impacts’. The report suggests that government should ‘shift the focus of attention away from facts and information, and towards altering the context in which people act’. Boiled down, this means: never mind reason, use pressure. And ideally an underhand, sly form of pressure.

The reason the nudgers are instinctively allergic to providing people with information is that they believe much of our behaviour takes place ‘outside conscious awareness’. Which means it cannot be influenced through such achingly old-fashioned mechanisms as moral debate and engagement but rather should be shifted with a bit of subliminal messaging and healthy-living handouts. Most shockingly of all, the nudge brigade sees it as its responsibility to exercise willpower on our behalf, because apparently we’re too fickle to do it ourselves. The government should become a ‘surrogate willpower’, says Mindspace; government action can ‘augment our freedom’ by pushing us to make the right choices. They don’t only want to remake our minds; they want to become our minds, Big Brother-style. It speaks volumes about the nudge statists that they cannot see what a whopping contradiction in terms it is to label government pressure as ‘freedom’ and external interventions into our brains as the exercising of ‘willpower’.

And the third problem with the nudge state is that it utterly rearranges the traditional democratic relationship. In the modern political era, it is supposed to be governments that shape themselves in response to what people want, not people who reshape their lifestyles in response to what the government wants. Democracy is meant to involve the formulation of a government that expresses the people’s will; it is about the people putting pressure on the authorities to believe in and pursue certain ideals. Under the nudge tyranny that is turned totally on its head, as instead the government devises more and more ways to put pressure on us to change. And it is because spiked values things like liberty, democracy, choice and debate that we hereby declare war on these nudgers above us.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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