Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Utopianism on the right: Walling in "the nation"

It is interesting to me that so much of right wing social visions today is about security and keeping us safe from things. It would seem that the world is a dangerous place (in spite of all the data showing that the world has become a much safer place over the last century) and that there is an urgent need to protect us. Much of that concern is focused on "securing the borders" from "illegal immigration" and to ensure that those who receive welfare "do not abuse the system". We hear that from politicians across the democratic world, particularly in relation to the ongoing refugee situation in Europe, during the Brexit debate and certainly during the American election campaign. It would seem that immigrants and poor people are dangerous.

The Fatalist Way: Management by mistrust


Key Values: Mistrust, suspicion, security, rule enforcement

The right wing narrative about the dangerous world is based on the assumptions that inform Fatalist management, which I often refer to as management by mistrust, namely that solidarity is impossible to achieve and that every system invites fraud, free-riding and opportunism. To counter that, governments need to take protective steps. Some of those are random controls, like the breath-tests used by traffic control law enforcement.

The management model is clearly top-down but there is also little coordinated action, because trust levels are so low. This is rational within this system. Since actors fear each other, they don't dare enter into partnerships, because if they do, their ideas might be stolen by others. Alternatively, they have to work a lot while others don't work at all, just free-riding on others' efforts. Anyone who's done group work in school will recognize it. For those who do the work, there's just too little benefit for the high cost involved.  Under such circumstances, people stop collaborating.

That becomes a substantive problem when it occurs throughout society. Democracy builds on trust. Almost 200 years ago, the French thinker Alexis DeToqueville described why American democracy worked: because people spontaneously came together, formed mutual aid groups and helped each other. Putnam later called this "social capital" and found, in a classic study, that Southern Italy's socioeconomic challenges could be tied to the lack of trust prevailing there. Citizens did not get organized and work together, because they did not trust each other. At a certain level, the lack of cooperation - the lack of social networks, social capital - becomes a problem and undermines democracy.

Keeping people in poverty: Workfare schemes

A very common Fatalist policy is the workfare program. It has been adopted for social welfare services across the democratic world in the last couple of decades and frames social welfare users as untrustworthy opportunists. To make sure recipients don't "abuse tax payer dollars", applicants are put through all sorts of rigorous tests, including drug use or literacy. Sometimes case officers force them to complete public work before giving them their welfare remuneration. The negative effects on the user have been well documented and they certainly don't do anything to get people off welfare or closer to self-sufficiency (Herd, Mitchell, & Lightman, 2005; Lightman et al., 2006; Lightman et al., 2006). In some cases, clients were unable to provide all the requested information and thus were disqualified (Herd, Mitchell, & Lightman, 2005). In one study, interviewed welfare recipients described how the system was “dominated by suspicion and a mentality of policing” (Herd et al., 2005, p. 13). Civil servants end up caught in the middle; they do not like having to treat clients this way. Senior managers complained that the system had been turned into an “eligibility machine” (Lightman et al., 2006, p. 137), which meant that they could not do what they wanted to, to support clients towards an improved life situation. The case demonstrates how destructive management by mistrust can be, particularly in social policy areas.

Walling in the nation to "keep it safe"

By now, it should be easy to spot the consistency between the values of the Fatalist Way and what conservatives in all democratic countries are saying about immigrants and refugees: "They are here to abuse our generous system and we have to keep our borders safe from free-riders and people who might be criminals". That sentiment clearly builds on mistrust and a treatment of these categories as potential free-riders and opportunists whose primary motivation is to abuse "our hospitality/system". While there is little new to say about him, Donald Trump's plan for immigration reform constitutes a good example of a Fatalist framing of immigration. The below identifies some typical Fatalist analysis in the plan.

Here is the free-rider frame: "Current immigration policy costs taxpayers $300 billion a year." Note how Trump ignores the contributions immigrants ("legal" or "illegal") are making to the US economy by adding their productivity to the overall workforce. They could make even greater contributions if they could work without fear of deportation, so their status as illegal is actually a drag on the American economy, but Trump ignores that possibility, too.

The crime-frame is referred in nine of ten bullets. Notably, most research shows that crime rates among immigrants in the US are lower than among the native born population, so this is incorrect, but it's essential to build the impression of a dangerous world that the Fatalist approach to governance thrives in. The point (no. 5 in Trump's list) about tripling the number of border control agents also supports that perspective, as does the now-famous proposal to build a wall. Trump wants to emphasize policing, rather than reform laws that are costly in both humanitarian and economic terms.

Consequences

The consequences of applying Fatalist policy as widely as Trump (and many other nativist, nationalist politicians want to) would be a decline in trust and cooperation in society as a whole. When that happens, we see a decrease in the formation of voluntary organizations, and a lack of capacity to do things together. Withering away trust on such a wide level risks undermining the political culture needed to support democracy itself.

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