The Astonishing Federal German Election of 2013

The 41.5% share of the vote gained by the CDU/CSU in Sunday’s election was a staggering 22% increase on their 2009 election result, the more astonishing considering that the German’s have had almost  four years of austerity in the interim.  To see the dominance of the CDU/CSU on Sunday take a look at this Der Spegiel analysis of the district (or constituency vote) section of the Federal Republic’s two vote system, here…

The sea of blue suggests an unusual and exceptional dominance in a proportional voting system designed precisely to disperse votes among parties to prevent exactly such supremacy.    The standard political analysis of the election outcome has identified several reasons for the election outcome, all of them valid, and in no particular order…

  • Merkel’s personal popularity
  • Merkel’s theft of her opponents policies and ideas
  • General concurrence with the Merkel government’s handling of the Euro crisis and domestic economic policy
  • Low unemployment, growing wages, economic growth (the classic feel good factor)
  • The SPD candidate for Chancellor was not popular/effective/good at campaigning (This is now a standard feature of SPD election campaigns when the candidate isn’t called Shroeder)

Also the commentators have observed that Merkel’s shift left to the centre borne both of her pragmatism and conviction light politics and the way in which the SPD vacated the centre to move left post its period in government, was instrumental in securing her victory.  This fascinating analysis from the WZB Berlin Social Research Center  shown below shows the trajectory of the main German parties.


From the perspective of politics as moral psychology there are three possible additional insights to add to the post election analysis:

Merkel’s Move to the Centre from the Right

Most of the voter are neither left or right but are in the middle so a shift there could accrue centrist voter’s and potentially lose right wing voters.  However, if politics is underpinned by moral intuitions or moral foundations as maintained here in this blog then a move from right to centre will not lose votes on the right if the CDU continued to refer to intuitions salient on the right – patriotism/order/in-group loyalty along with policies that touch left moral intuitions such as her job subsidy policy (fairness) or ending nuclear power (care/harm).  Merkel’s pick and mix her smorgasbord approach isn’t ideologically coherent but it can work at this moral psychological level.

In addition to Haidtian Moral Foundations something very important happened at the moral psychological level…

The Switch in Fiskian Social Structures

The SPD’s Agenda 2010 policies pursued in government in the first decade of this century to reform welfare, labour markets and labour laws bore fruit in Germany’s current economic strength, low unemployment and growing incomes.  A part of the SDP never liked these policies and the current leadership distanced itself from this “neo-liberal phase”.  That distancing allowed the right to colonise the centre as the SDP moved left.

In Fiskain terms the SPD in government adopted MP as a social relation over the hostility or indifference or cowardice of the CDU/CSU.  However, the CDU/CSU inherited these reforms in government and in not reversing them, came to own them, increasing their Fiskain foot print.  So we have this Fiskian shift – SPD moves out of MP, the CDU/CSU gains MP and moves to the centre stealing pure CS polices from their left opponents.

This graphic shows shift


The CDU/CSU is simply colonising more moral psychological space than the SPD.  The SPD move away from its reform policies may have been in the false belief that it could increase votes on the left by the abandonment of its “neo-liberal” phase but this analysis suggests that MP references trigger moral intuitions, have moral salience for voters many of whom will vote on the left if triggered.  Of course some voters vote against MP when they sense that it is triggered or referenced but perhaps the former is greater than the later.  Ask the CDU/CSU.

The SDP has another problem with its roots in moral political psychology…

Reverse Dominance

The argument of this blog is that dominance and reverse dominance play a significant part in determining our emotional support for either the left or the right, or the centre or no politics at all.  In German terms the existence of a powerful and significant Left Party which took 8% of the vote on Sunday continues to reign effective, additional ruin on the SPD electoral chances.

Oscar Lafontaine walked out of an SPD government and wrote a book called ” The Heart Beats on the Left” perfectly illustrating the emotions which drive his and our politics but by taking a section of the SPD to the join with the former East German communists he has split the German left along the cleavage of strong reverse dominance and weak reverse dominance.  Lafontaine walked out of government because the switch from anti-authoritarianism as the basis of his moral intuition to that of finance minister was too distressing.  Better to take that course of action which would prevent a majority left government so that basic moral intuition – “all in group authority is corrupt” could be maintained and not confused by a SPD government improving the social condition.   Now some of the Left Party vote especially in the east is explicitly communist but in the former west Germany it has denuded the SDP of the anti-authoritarianism that is the backbone of much political leftism.

If this is true then it is also the hidden explanatory variable in the SDP’s worst ever vote share in 2009, just as the broad and deep beneficial effects of its earlier governance became manifest.  This apparent paradox is resolved by the moral intuition of left voters (some strongly, some weakly) that authority is a problem in itself.  Little wonder then that SPD baulks at the prospect of entering government again as the junior coalition partner.


Some Reflections on the Moral Political Psychology of Margaret Thatcher

In the comments below I will try talk in neutral terms about some of Margaret Thatcher’s political psychological motivations but I need to prevent this post being interpreted as approbation, so I make a political statement without any evidence or back up just like IN everyone else’s blog and then I return to the faux third person.

Here is the undisguised political comment:

Margaret Thatcher did monumental and enduring harm and some significant good, the latter mostly not justified or required by the former.


Back to disguised political comment….


Conviction Politician

Aren’t they all conviction politicians?  Well yes if you are a moral intuitivist, someone who holds, after Hume “that reason is the slave to the passions”.  They all start with their convictions and then move forward to their politics and then shape their policies to support their convictions.  This direction inverts the normal piety whereby the politician asserts that they are in possession of wisdom and superhuman powers of reason which they have brought to bear on the weighty subject of improving the general welfare, and are now in so positioned as to be able to announce a particular political perspective.  And even better, they have deduced how execute this rational vision in policy.

What else can political convictions be other than a moral intuitions about what is right and wrong?  Moralising was a constant with Thatcher:  simply wrong that the State should take so much of GDP, simply wrong that the aspirational were held back, simply wrong that the State lived beyond its means, simply wrong that effort was over-taxed.  People who should merely have been her opponents became enemies as they were opposing, as she saw it,  the good, her good one and the same thing.

If Haidt is correct about the moral foundations which underlie our political life how do hers shape up against a liberal Conservative like David Cameron.





Significantly weaker then Cameron on Care/Harm reduction.  Cameron, influenced by the Lib Dems in the coalition has probably disavowed formal Thatcher hostility to policies in this area.  Policies on minimum unit pricing and warnings on cigarette packaging are classic harm reduction measures which Thatcher would have been loathe to even pick up.  The colossal harm caused by the de-industrialisation which she hastened and deepened didn’t appear to be a cause of lost sleep on her part..  Can a single reference to any anxiety around the individual impact of mass unemployment be found?

Freedom To

The most significant comment to be made about her Haiditan profile is just how much it compares with that of a libertarian, which has at its heart the veneration of the idea of freedom.  See her sale of council houses (freedom from state control, increase in autonomy), her characterisation of the cold war as a struggle for freedom, the endless free the people rhetoric (“freedom under the law”)in her justification of privatisation and other policies.  Did she ever mention positive freedom, freedom from want, freedom from privation?  Look at the rhetoric  and see how freedom to and freedom from are entirely different things in this politician.  It might be suspected that freedom from and freedom to are entirely counterpoised, perhaps in the same way as Dominance and Reverse Dominance, perhaps even because they are stops on the same spectrum.

In-Group Loyalty

The strength of her in-group loyalty shaped her entire premiership from her anti-Soviet stance, to the  conflict with the EEC/EU through to her characterisation of the miners during the mid-80s strike as out-group enemies.  At a personal level the famous “not one of us” categorisation of her entire social space was typical of someone with a strong in and out group mentality.  Her outrage over the Argentine behaviour in the Falklands was characterised by a fierce in-group viewpoint, seeing only “unprovoked aggression” and the inability to countenance any solution not consistent with the wishes of the islanders.  If the islanders remained loyal to the in-group then, they and she,  formed an impenetrable moralised shield against Argentine demands.

The UK is multi-national state and her fierce in-group loyalty led to a confusion between British and English Nationalism which she disastrously and carelessly conflated.  Support for the Conservative Party has never recovered in Scotland in Wales.

Fairness as Proportionality

Under her premiership the UK became a fabulously less equal place with millions of additional people falling into absolute poverty but this did not appear to offend her sense of fairness, what did offend her sense of fairness was the UK contributed much more to the EEC budget than it got out.  Perversely, in the 1980s, a then poorer country like the UK with and efficient agricultural sector end up subsidising a rich country like Belgium with an inefficient agriculture.  This anomaly was created by the CAP dominance of the EEC budget at the time and it clearly offended Thatcher’s sense of fairness in a way that mass impoverishment did not.  She won a rebate from the rich (EEC members) as wealth was transferred to the poor (the then UK).    Fairness as proportionality, taking out what you have put in matters to Conservatives as Haidt has suggested.

Reverse Dominance

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

The reading that she selected for her funeral from Ephesians Chapter 6 (Bible 0000) contained this line.  It drew some attention at the time for its martial qualities so typical of her combativeness but there is an additional interpretation and it addresses a key feature of her politics.  This passage may have resonated with her as she did see herself as someone fighting against the socially dominate.  Examples are legion, consensus politics, the BBC, the establishment, the Miners, the trade unions generally,  the entire social democratic settlement, her party grandees, the aristocracy who had sold out Britain with their one nation politics.  Her reform agenda often upset dominant producer interests such as doctors, opticians and lawyers.  At the time many middle class people whose desirable social position was the result of several years of higher education and study and ten years of low paid apprenticeship were upset to discover that  she facilitated the new wealth of plumbers, gas engineers and double glazing salespeople.  She had little time for traditional social dominance that many Conservatives wondered if she were a Conservative at all .

More Libertarian than Conservative

Was Thatcher a Conservative or a Libertarian? In Haidt’s (and others) paper on “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians”  ( there are a series of psychological trait comparisons between self-identified traditional Conservatives and self-identified Libertarians.   Haidt et al use a measure called Cohen’s d-score to measure these differences, and so taking those traits with a d-score to be greater than or equal to 0.4,


Trait Description Cohen’s d score for Libertarians Compared to Conservatives Relevance to Thatcher Comment
Schwarz values scale – Benevolence



Not a word in her known lexicon  
Schwarz values scale – Conformity



The radical break with conformity in the shape of the Tory support for British post-war consensuses goes directly to her unconcern with conforming Quote


“To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects”

Schwarz values scale – Tradition



This disinclination to conserve what is there was a marked difference between herself and other Conservatives, at times she was almost revolutionary trying to overthrow the old and bring a new world into being  
Empathic Concern


Not a word in her known lexicon  
Hong Reactance Scale (is an 11-item measure of psychological reactance. The scale measures the extent to which people are emotionally resistant to restrictions on their behavioral freedom and to the advice and influence of others)




“The lady is Not for Turning” emotional resistance to the advice and influence of others.  Traditional Conservatives are more likely to listen and conform.



“If you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time, and you would achieve nothing”


Need for Cognition


This trait and the one below are the reason that she was more ideological than other Conservatives, the ideology came after the moral intuition but she needed the intellectual satisfactions of neo-liberal ideology more than say Cameron  
Cognitive Reflection Task (cognitive reflection task provides a behavioral validation of the hypothesis that libertarians have a more reasoned cognitive style)


As above  

These last two traits drive the need in libertarians to have an intellectual rationalisation for their position.  Her various intellectual enthusiasms – monetarism, neo-liberalism, the quantity theory of money are expressions of the need to find reasons for what she intuitively held in any case, true of all politics but she was a singularly ideological politician by any standard and if she was more libertarian than Conservative then this would be the reason why.

There are also some indications in Haidt’s paper that Libertarians are more socially disconnected than Conservatives with fewer friendships or social connections.   There are two instances in her career when the absence of friendship come to mind, once when retired she appeared to suffer from a lonely old age, and secondly that critical moment in her downfall when she needed support on the second ballot of Conservative MPs.  She was dismayed at the private advice of most ministers who urged her to go rather than stand and fight.  Had she had friends instead of coalitional allies they might have stiffened her resolve by agreeing to fight with her, but their calculation of their own personal interest and the interest of their Party was all that she was faced with.  A dense network of friendships across the upper reaches of the Party might have changed the calculus but it wasn’t there in that critical moment.

It should also be noted that that group of ‘libertine’ traits associated with Libertarianism simply do not apply to her private life which was conservative with a very small c.

No Such Thing as Society

Fiske teaches that there is such a thing as society, calling it Communal Sharing (CS) and insisting that it is deeply cognitively instantiated as it comprised the social environment in which humans spent millennia evolving in. Mrs Thatcher though it not to exist to just about everyone’s astonishment and consternation.  This comment came to define her in the eyes of her opponents as it was such a startling conclusion.

The first half of the famous quote then (to Women’s Own who were looking for a light colour piece but struck the purest ‘good copy’ gold)

‘I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first…

The Fiskian structure is revealed in the second half of the quote

There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.’

Fiske: “the morality of Market Pricing is represented in the libertarian ideology of absolute freedom of rational choice, together with the sanctity of voluntarily negotiated contracts or promises”.  This is the tapestry that she is referring to.  The existence of a venerated social structure in her psychology leads her to down play or attack and another social structure which she does not venerate. That is a defining feature of social relations in Fiske’s theory – venerate or demonise and this will shape your political perspective.

We can have a picture of her emphasis on Fiske social relations compared say to David Cameron




It is not that she has no CS sensibility but rather that she was weak on CS and extremely strong on MP, the one displaced the other.  Another example of her using the “morality” of MP to trump that of CS is her famous reflection in her speech to the assembled (and dumbfounded) Church of Scotland that

No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.

She meant that he had got money through an effort probably comprised of “of voluntarily negotiated contracts”. This was the pre-condition of his charity, and wealth so acquired is an act morally equal to charity.

(Note that nearly all existing religions evolved culturally in a time when society was dominated by strong CS and AR and weak EM and MP.  So they all tend to esteem the virtuous side of CS and AR, and are broadly confused or indifferent to EM and MP social relations).

Weak EM?  She did win three landslide election victories but she was hostile to democratic aspirations from Scotland and Wales, and it took her a long time to agree to a Northern Ireland Assembly and allow the possibility of elections there as part of the solution.  She abolished the democratically elected government of London in a probably unconstitutional fashion.  Perhaps the weak EM sensibility was because of the way in which the extra-strong MP foundation tended to eclipse everything.


Some People are only Out for Self

“I have a profound belief, a fervent faith – in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence” 1975

Her opponents and enemies delighted in her denunciation of the backbench MPS who brought her down  as acting selfishly “some people are only out for self.”   Was that not exactly what she had been trying to achieve her whole political career?  To acknowledge the basic selfishness and better align societal structures to this reality?  Why then be outraged when the dynamic of the arrant pursuit of self-interest on the part of her own MPs resulted in the destruction of her political career?

Thatcher was surprised by the association of her legacy with selfish individualism, explicable in her terms by the moralizing of contract relations within the MP framework.  Fiske agrees that there is nothing inherently selfish about MP but none of these social structures are unalloyed virtues, they contain and are good and bad, those who moralise, valourise or venerate a particular social structure are in danger of being blinded to it’s downside which in the case of MP includes slavery, ruthless exploitation and the milder end of its dark side has as Fiske acknowledges, avarice.   This danger in MP can be offset by strong applications of CS, EM and AR but she was markedly weak on these and that was the danger.


MP – The Contract

This post is not addressing the 1000 people she pushed into poverty every day of her Premiership as a indifference on in her part to the harm/care and fairness Haitdain foundations and combined with some ordinary incompetence and outright callousness.  There are however, two aspects of her legacy which endure positively, firstly the UK would be a society in which capitalism, markets and private initiative would be more important than the actions of the state in creating wealth.  Secondly and more interesting in the psychological sense is the effect of such a ferocious emphasis on MP social relations and the need to examine all the existing contracts.

Fiske tells us that contract would be a better description of MP as it cover not only market pricing relations but all relations in which the individual sits within a contract framework including obeying the law. Thatcher’s reforming governments opened up and examined contract relations as they had formed across the corporatist British state.  She took all these relations out re-examined them (from her singular perspective) and recast them, sometimes successfully, sometimes pointlessly, sometimes making things worse, but always changing, tackling the vested interests which cling to existing frameworks and who are not able to see difference between their financial interest in the current order and the potential collective interest in reform.  This constant examination of contract and her un-Conservative libertarian habit of Reverse Dominance (see above) drove her to take on producer interests even when that was unpopular.

This predilection to examine existing contracts and embark on waves of reform has since been a distinctive feature of British politics ever since and this “reformability” has contributed to the political and economic recovery of the British State.  The current British government has continued the path of reform across welfare, healthcare and education as its predecessors did and contrasts sharply with the inability of many countries to reform ossified governmental and market structures beset by producer and sectional interests.


The Effect on the Left

This blog has suggested a typology of political parties based on their reference of Fiskian  social structures.  The “hard” left communists, Stalinist, Leninists and Trotskyites all referencing CS only whereas traditional social democracy references CS and EM as that part of the left adopted the values and methods of democracy.  The strain Thatcher’s political success had in the 80s on the left shows this effect as Labour moved left in relation to the social distress caused by Thatcherism as it offered collectivist solutions such as nationalisation and higher taxes on the wealthy strengthening its CS reference.  At the time Labour was being successfully infiltrated by a Trotskist organisation called the Militant Tendency.  It is a reflection of the stress Labour was under at the time that enough sections of the Labour Movement were prepared to accept or abide by this entryism even though Militant was formally hostile to the liberalism contained in all EM structures.

This conflict was exacerbated by the right of the Labour Party’s traditional acceptance of market mechanisms and capitalism a pure MP social structure.  So in Labour in the first half of the 80s there where three lefts: Militant (CS), traditional Labour (CS and EM) and Labour’s right (CS, EM and MP).  The strain eventually broke Labour in two, resulting in the expulsion of Militant who went on to electoral irrelevance but more devastating was the formation of the Social Democratic Party by a section of the Labour Right.  These cleavages show the deep importance of Fiskian structures and demonstrate the way in which they are cognitive instantiated to drive real politics along the psychological tramlines they set down.  Note the three lefts don’t differ much on the care/harm and fairness foundations of Haidt, they are united on these moral foundations, you need Fiskian thought to make a fuller sense of what is happening.

Blair as “son of Thatcher” isn’t correct a the level of policy as 500 of those people moved into absolute poverty by Thatcher reversed their movement every week under Tony Blair’s governments but is surely correct that her reforming, her contract examination under MP and her victory for capital influenced the Labour right in its adoption of CS, EM and MP.  Blair’s government’s notable for their reforming zeal and adoption of markets.


Politics Runs on the Tramlines of Social Structures

An astonishing archive piece in the summer edition of The New Statesman (28th July – 8th August, 2013) in the form of an article written by DH Lawrence in 1928 entitled “A Letter from Germany”. Based on some travels he made in that benighted country as it reeled from the damage of the First World War, and the twin catastrophes of the hyper-inflation of the early 20s (“money becomes insane, and people with it”) and then the start of years of painful austerity (“economy, economy, economy that too becomes an insanity”), these two follies presaging the even greater psychopathology that was to come.

Lawrence’s letter is superhumanly prescient and filled with foreboding; in 1928 he has “something has happened which has not yet eventuated. The old spell of the old world has broken, and the old, bristling, savage spirit has set in” and even darker  “..not that the people are actually planning or plotting or preparing. I don’t believe it for a minute. But something has happened to the human soul, beyond all help…”  To the human soul beyond all help, Lawrence is eloquent and yet, amid his despair he able to sense something beyond the proximate mechanisms (austerity, political hatred, impoverishment) and points us to the underlying  breach and the consequential reversion to an atavism has taken place.

He says “the old flow, the old adherence is ruptured. And a still older flow has set in” and look at this for clairvoyance “…away from the polarity of civilized Christian Europe. This, it seems to me, has already happened. And it is a happening of far more profound import that any actual event. It is the father of the next phase of events.”  And if that isn’t startling brilliant enough then “there is a sense of danger. It is not the people. They don’t seem dangerous. Out of the very air comes a sense of danger, a queer, bristling feeling of uncanny danger”

Of course, part of this is the famous folk memory of trauma which both under girds the bi-partisan commitment to the current German welfare state and the right’s refusal to countenance any inflation risk inherent in monetising the Euro zone debt.   But Lawrence records that the damage wasn’t just to the social condition but to the social structure itself “but it feels as if, virtually, it were gone. The last two years have done it. The hope in peace-and-production is broken.”

The social anthropologist Fiske pointed out in his landmark Structures of Social Life (1991) that we only relate to everyone else in four ways:

1 They are either kin or a lover with whom we are genuinely prepared to share with unselfishly and this leads to Communal Sharing (CS)

2. We do what we are told by charismatic or legal or contracted authority.  We instruct others because of our dominance over them in a social hierarchy.  This is Authority Ranking (AR)

3. They are a friend or colleague or acquaintance or neighbour and we interact with them on an “I scratch your back and you scratch mine basis” this is basis of Equality Matching (EM)

4. Lastly you interact with someone on the basis of a contract.  All market relations are here as well as civil contracts such as between the local Council and the council taxpayers.  This contract he calls MP for market pricing so we have four neat distinctions.

Traditional societies where we lived for 200,000 years are shaped by CS and AR relations, and this illustrates three key points of Fiske’s, firstly, that CS and AR  have deep rich salience in our psychology, stronger then EM and MP which did exist back then but in weaker form ; all four however are deeply cognitively instantiated.  The second point is that there is a tendency to venerate or despise these social structures as they all contain virtues and vices as anyone familiar with the literature on traditional societies will attest, or anyone who has any knowledge of early 21st market relations (MP).  Good and bad, moral purpose, moral turpitude is in each social relation. His third point is that these social structures are the cognitive superstructure on which much modern phenomenon are built – the liberal revolution of the 18th century is Equality Matching (EM) – my vote is the same as yours, the growth of capitalism in our capacity to contract with strangers (MP).  A consequence of this last point politics references the four structures in profound and often wholly unconscious ways, and politics would be richer if this fact was more widely appreciated.

Lawrence’s reference to the “hope in peace-and-production is broken” is an acute perception of the civilising structures of Market Pricing (MP), the contracts which exist between people as economic actors and citizens being destroyed, and in Germany’s  case in the 1920s, in a particularly desperate way, with both the bourgeoisie and the workers in parallel despair.  This destruction of Market Pricing (MP) as a social structure “the move away from western Europe civilisation” (Lawrence) accompanied the discrediting of the democratic system which resides in the cognitive structures as Equality Matching (EM). Democracy was undermined by the consecutive discrediting of the governing forms of monarchism, militarism and then democracy accompanied by hyper-inflation and then incoherent political fragmentation and turmoil.

At the same time another totalitarianism destroyed Equality Matching (EM) and Market Pricing (MP) social structures as matter of principle and earnest policy. Attempting to return the people to the “idyll” of Communal Sharing (CS) required the world’s greatest ever structure of Authority Ranking (AR): the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and it millions of security staff.  The two great totalitarianisms of the 20th century, Fascism and Communism used the same two social structures Communal Sharing (CS) and Authority Ranking (AR) but in different ways with the Nazis (national socialists) conceiving of the commune as the nation for which sacrifice is required and the communists required sacrifice for the workers collective, usually, as it happened, by the workers.

These social structures as outlined by Fiske remain the tramlines on which all our politics run, they are seen at their most stark at the extremes but the undertow of CS  as an ideal is still the cognitive bedrock of most democratic left politics but made sensible by the equal commitment to EM and a grudging acceptance of MP.  Modern Conservatives reference and venerate MP social relations as a moral basis for politics which is strengthened by a commitment to EM and a weak reference to CS.  When Mrs Thatcher said that there is no such thing as society she was, with her customary aggression and disagreeableness, besetting the social structure of CS which she felt compared badly with the moral probity inherent in contract or Market Pricing social structures.  For Thatcher MP is “represented in the ideology of absolute freedom of rational choice, together with the sanctity of voluntarily negotiated contracts or promises “, that’s morality, CS, for her simply wasn’t at the (moral) races.

The entire political landscape is composed of references to these Fiskian social structures.  The difference between New Labour and old Labour?  New Labour references CS, EM and MP whereas traditional social democracy references CS and EM.  Both repudiate AR.  UKIP doesn’t, UKIP is CS and AR and some EM but is weak on MP.  Although if you want a left which does reference AR you can still go to Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela with CS and AR, no EM and little or no MP.  What of the CDU/CSU in modern Germany – strong EM, CS and weak MP, so weak in that a minor party the Free Democrats colonises that space on the right with its sole dedication to MP.  Parties which colonise only one social structure tend to be weak.  The UK Liberal Party venerated EM above all but when it merged with the SDP its political appeal widen by adding CS and some MP. The French Communist Party only references CS and hides the AR requirement that is required to deliver strong CS in an industrial country.  When the German SPD in power operated labour market reform in the early 2000s to the enduring benefit of all, it lost out on the left to Lafontaine’s new Party repudiating MP and re-referencing CS and EM strongly.

The new Labour government lost millions of votes to Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats as it attacked the New Labour MP policies (recall that MP ought to be called contract) of welfare and public sector reform as well as its pro-market bias.  In government, in part as a consequence of this MP repudiation, the Liberal Democrats now pick up and run with MP policies whereas Labour in opposition demands “one nation” and a good society (CS) and doing politics differently (EM).

Fiskian social structures are the emotional tracks upon which the trains of politics run shaping all discourse and the selection of individual policies.  Take the critical issue of European wide austerity as promulgated by the dominant right wing governments in Europe.  Why do Conservatives believe that debt is worse than recession? What is going on emotionally when debt is thought to be worse than economic decline?  Could it be that they are using the wrong social structure?  Debt is a problem (and it is a real problem) of contract and sits within the MP structure but if you conceptualise debt as a problem in CS then it is an excess of obligation.  In the 200 millennia when people lived in CS there was no economic growth but there was obligation to kith and kin, and a certain amount of this was necessary but an excess of this is dangerous and deceitful. It was morally wrong then and reputation diminishing  to take on obligations that you cannot fulfil.  Conservatives are applying CS thinking to an MP problem. Remember that when you hear the head of the ECB talking.

Using the wrong social structure reference can confuse and confound at the level of policy: take the UK welfare debate with both pro and anti-reformers both positioning themselves as the champions of fairness.  For the coalition the Household Benefits Cap is about fairness as proportionality, it is simply unfair that some households receive from the State more than many others in work do.  But this concept of fairness is rooted in the social structure of Equality Matching however, opponents of the Household Benefit Cap insist that needs are needs and they should be met.  Here welfare reform opponents are referencing the Communal Sharing social structure.  The political tower of Babel gets higher and higher upon the ignorance of emotional attachment to referenced social structures.

The miracle of Lawrence’s German letter prescience is that he saw beyond the proximate causes to the ultimate cause sensing the loss of MP and EM in German society and the reversion to earlier models.  Famously, in that moment when “ the soul went beyond all help” – the accession of Hitler to power in 1933, in the last free parliamentary session the leader of the leader of the Social Democrats, Otto Wels said “At this historic hour, we the German Social Democrats pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and Socialism… You can take our lives and our freedom, but you cannot take our honour. We are defenceless but not honourless”  But it was too late EM and MP had died ten years earlier.

The UK welform reform debate and competing types of fairness

Supporters and opponents of the coalition’s welfare reforms have each sought out one particular piece of moral high ground to defend their conflicting positions: the lofty mountain peak that is fairness. If the famous shopkeepers in philosophical arguments of old, used to argue from different premises, these retailers of outrage and reform appear to be in the same shop, operating with the same premise, the same high moral purpose both claiming fairness as their motivation.  Callers to talk radio, newspaper letter writers, newspaper columnists and politicians have built a modern day tower of Babel on the application of the word fairness to current welfare reform policy.

Three aspects’ of the Coalition’s welfare reforms are particularly fair and apparently, simultaneously, not fair:

  • The bedroom tax
  • The decision to reduce benefit levels by not uprating for inflation
  • The household  cap on the amount any household can claim in total

Each of these is defended by the Coalition in the name of fairness: the household cap is fair because people who are not working shouldn’t get more than those working, the cut in real terms in benefits a reflection of the fact that workers who fund benefit payments have seen some of the biggest ever falls in real incomes, and the bedroom tax justified by treating those in social housing in the same way as those in the private rented sector. Opponents of these reforms simply state that making poor people poorer is unfair, per se and that’s that.

Now one explanation for the apparent disconnect on the word fairness advanced on the left is that the Conservatives don’t really believe in fairness and that they are using Orwellian speak to promote their traditional assault on the poor.  It was however,  the Conservative Bismarck who founded the first welfare state in late nineteenth century Germany by creating a system of insurance to protect workers during periods of sickness and from the effects of industrial accidents.  Curiously, at the time this wrong footed the German socialists who had not develop this type of proposal.   Bismarck thought a system of insurance where you take out what you put in, subject to certain eligibility rules, a form of fairness, Conservatives still do as evidenced by the continental Christian Democrat support for the insurance based model of social welfare.

So are there two types of fairness one to which the right subscribes and one on the left?  Left and right are often sheepish on this matter as each can see that the other’s usage of fairness has some justification.  The left can see that treating social housing and private renting differently in respect of the total amount of benefit received violates a certain type of fairness and most of the right will acknowledge that people receive benefits not just to survive  but as an indicator of fairness as redistribution.

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff in his Moral Politics is interested to enumerate the ways in which language and metaphor appear to give an advantage to the political right, in doing so he considers the moral values that underlie political discourse and finds that in respect of fairness we have ten types (Moral politics P129)

  • Fairness as redistribution
  • Equality of opportunity
  • Procedural distribution – playing by the rules
  • Rights based fairness  – you get what you have a right to
  • Needs based fairness – the more you need the more you have right to
  • Scalar distribution – the more you work, the more you get
  • Contractual distribution – you get what you agree to
  • Equal distribution of responsibility – we share the burden equally
  • Scalar distribution of responsibility – the greater your abilities the greater your responsibilities
  • Equal distribution of power – one person, one vote

Now Lakoff despaired of the inability of the left to frame issues to their advantage but he will have taken delight in the “bedroom tax” which is an incredible description of a benefit cut.  A rare framing success for the left.

Jonathan Haidt founded political psychology in 2012 with his landmark ‘The Righteous Mind’ by not finding out the underlying psychological traits which go to make up political attitudes but instead identifying the “moral foundations” which make up the superstructure of political action in a sample of tens of thousands of individuals.   Prime among these moral foundations is, as expected, fairness, mainly as redistribution but Haidt also observes that Conservatives are concerned with fairness as proportionality – taking out what you put in.  Haidt’s other key finding is that the moral foundations are strongly and weakly held by different individuals and for “fairness as redistribution” the right shares this foundation but holds it weakly which differentiates them from those on the left which hold it well, ferociously.  So to Lakoff’s list above add in fairness as proportionality.

Back to Bismarck – he was employing three types of fairness in his social insurance scheme 1. Fairness as proportionality – workers take out what they put in when in need it 2. Fairness as playing by the rules – the social insurance scheme is a set of rules  3. Fairness as redistribution – is addressed in the state sanctioning and support for his scheme.

Now it can be noticed that all the concepts of fairness in the Lakoff list above are uncontroversial, broadly everyone can subscribe to them to some degree but so important to the left is fairness as redistribution that the other types of fairness are often simply dragooned along in support.  The right does this as well creating its own interlocking type of fairness set.  This differing emphasis on different types of fairness is part of the explanation for the talk radio late night chaos as well as the incomprehension on the floor of the House of Commons.

The confusion doesn’t end there: fairness happens in the context of social relations and there are four of these.  You have kin or lovers and you are disposed to regard their needs as similar to your own, this relationship mode has been called Communal Sharing by the anthropologist Robert Fiske, you are someone’s boss or an a position of authority over them at work, at the church, in the drug gang or at the scouts, you are also subordinate to others in some hierarchical arrangement, Fiske calls this Authority Ranking.  You have friends and colleagues and your relationship can be one of “you scratch my back and I will scratch yours” – Equality Matching according to Fiske.  There is a fourth relationship: that of contract, with your employer, with your employees, with your  rice supplier, a contract to supply and receive on a monetary basis.  For Fiske this is Market Pricing and each of the four are deeply cognitively understood, sometimes venerated.

Plainly some of Lakoff’s fairness types map to differing social relations with “Scalar distribution of responsibility – the greater your abilities the greater your responsibilities” clearly originating in Authority Ranking and “equal distribution of power – one person, one vote” grounded in Equality Matching.  In fact a matrix can be built of types of fairness, left and right and the social relations in which the apply:

Fairness   Type expressed strongly on the Right Social   Relation Referenced   Fairness   Type expressed strongly on the Left Social   Relation Referenced
Procedural distribution – playing by the   rules Equality Matching Fairness as redistribution Communal Sharing
Scalar distribution – the more you work,   the more you get Market Pricing Equality of opportunity Market Pricing
Contractual distribution – you get what   you agree to Market Pricing Rights based fairness  – you what you have a right to Equality Matching
Scalar distribution of responsibility –   the greater your abilities the greater your responsibilities Authority Ranking Needs based fairness – the more you need   the more you have right to Communal Sharing
Fairness as proportionality Equality Matching Equal distribution of responsibility – we   share the burden equally Equality Matching /Authority Ranking
Equal distribution of power – one person,   one vote Equality Matching Equal distribution of power – one person,   one vote Equality Matching

Several important ideas flow from the table analysis:

  • One type  of fairness is held in equal esteem – one person one vote but that has  little consequence for welfare policy
  • Fairness   types cluster on the right or left – It might be possible to argue that the left dragoons  all types of      fairness in support of the dominant fairness as redistribution type, and      the right venerates fairness as getting more for more effort and getting  what you to agree to as primary types with the others in support.
  • The  appeal of the left’s politics is heavily grounded in the social structure  of Communal Sharing leading to the continual use of that particular  framing and the emphasis on fairness as redistribution
  • The   appeal of Market Pricing on the right, in the described by Fiske as the “absolute freedom of rational choice,      together with the sanctity of voluntarily negotiated contracts” is  venerated, driving the right’s prioritization of fairness types such as  “Scalar distribution – the more      you work, the more you get” and “Contractual distribution – you get what  you agree to”
  • Both left   and right can agree with the entire list, to a degree

On the recent policy reforms each can be addressed by appealing to the fairness types and the way in which they play in differing social relations.

Policy Coalition   Fairness Type Reference Opponents   Fairness Type Reference
Bedroom Tax Procedural distribution – playing by the   rules

Aligning the rights of private and public   sector tenants justified by the law of contract which sits in Market Pricing

Rights based fairness  – you what you have a right to

Security of tenure for social tenants   should not be overturned by benefit reductions justified by (social) Equality   Matching

Household Cap Fairness as proportionality – aligning   the earnings of benefit payers to those of benefit recipients justified by   Equality Matching Needs based fairness – the more you need   the more you have right to

Needs are needs and fairness dictates   that they should be met strong Communal Sharing method

Benefits Not Uprating for Inflation Fairness as proportionality – aligning   the earnings of benefit payers’ declining incomes to those of benefit   recipients justified by Equality Matching Needs based fairness – the more you need   the more you have right to

Needs are needs and fairness dictates   that they should be met strong Communal Sharing method

So in conclusion, proponents and opponents of these reforms need to address each other’s notions of fairness and not dismiss the other as being engaged in Orwellian doublespeak.  Fairness really does mean many different things.

An interesting question would be to posit which type of welfare policy could satisfy as many possible notions of fairness to allow broad-based support for reform.

The Confirmation Bias has its Woodstock

In the landslide of comment following the death of Margaret Thatcher one remark stood out for me from Dame Mary Archer in the Telegraph

 “Dame Mary, herself a scientist by training, describes how the former prime minister drew her convictions from a mastery of “the facts”. In an interview with The Telegraph, Dame Mary said: “She always exhibited the mindset of a scientist, by which I mean her approach was evidence-based, a wish to understand things thoroughly, never to skate over the surface.” “Many distinguished politicians would go on gut and instinct, which isn’t the scientific way. Baroness Thatcher was different.”

 Recall that Baroness Thatcher, despite her scientific training, failed to spot that she lived in a society, so I am uncertain about the scientific acuteness that she could have brought to any assessment of “the facts”.  Mrs Thatcher’s degree in chemistry may have taught her the scientific method as it applies to atoms and molecules but her spectacular failure to spot were she lived (in a society) suggests that Thatcher, like all other politicians couldn’t escape, what Mary Archer calls “gut and instinct” but which this blog is going to call Moral Intuitions.  The reason I suspect that Mary Archer thought Mrs T’s political analysis to be exceptionally scientific was that she broadly shares her own Moral Intuitions and therefore inherits a similar confirmation bias.

Warren Buffet gave a succinct description of the phenomenon:

What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact”.

Haidt (The Righteous Mind) is not the author of the Confirmation Bias by any means but he sets it in the context of his theory of moral intuitions, and it is his claim that these intuitions are spectacles from which we look out and see the world.   Haidt takes this old idea, but adds it into the coalitional psychology upon which politics is founded.  The interaction of this Binding (coalitional psychology) allows the confirmation bias, to apply as if it is hyper-charged with mass, simultaneous, coordinated “Blinding”.  So he has the notion that Politics can Bind and Blind us.

I prefer the description of motivated social cognition rather than the Confirmation Bias, with the social being the set of social facts that it is possible to see, the motivated being the subset of social facts that it anyone is motivated to process via our intuitions, and the cognition is that way that we process it.  If you fail to see that you are in a society then your Confirmation Bias is working just fine.

The obituaries and commentary around the death and legacy of Thatcher are the Woodstock moment of the Confirmation Bias with TV/Radio and newspapers, panelists and interviewees and interviewers able to dumbfound each other, the one capable of leaving the other open mouthed in disbelief that they could be discussing the same subject.  The other day on the BBC the Tory Cecil Parkinson winced in shock to be reminded that Mrs T was able to pay for mass unemployment with North Sea Oil money (he recalled a short temporary elevated level), and the Labour Peer Helena Kennedy was speechless to hear that tax had been reduced from 83% to 40% and that Price and Exchange controls had been abolished (the relevance exchange controls for goodness sake).

The violence in the differing perspectives: saviour of the Nation – The Prime Minister, an evil woman – Ann Scargill.  The Economist – Freedom Fighter, The Scottish Daily Record “£130bn of Scottish Wealth axed”.  There was a claim that she had saved £75bn in obtaining a rebate from the EU, who knew?  Well her acolyte William Hague knew alright and was able to recall this from memory.

A veritable Glastonbury then of Confirmation Bias with the Economist headlining on the main stage and left blogs playing to the more sophisticated types on the cooler but more obscure stages.  Something then about the Economist’s dedication to dispassionate rationality affords it this pride of place at the top of the bill.  Haidt’s intuitive model would assert that all this clever reasoning, all this rationalisation has a purpose: to disguise the fact that Thatcher and the Economist share the same Moral Intuitions.


What exactly were Thatcher’s Moral Intuitions?  I will blog about this shortly….

Afterthought in Response to Rentoul

I think Blair’s confusion on moving beyond left and right is his social relation of choice.  Blair is an MP sort of guy, valorising this type of Social Relations as a moral good,  remember him being mocked for suggesting “we do what works”.  That subset of the left and that subset of the right whose social reference point is MP may be able to work together and I think that is what he has in mind, but he should be aware that these are still minority political usages of a relational social model and even these do not converge at the level of moral intuitions.  Although a meeting across the “aisle” that acknowledged these constraints might be unusually productive.   To see how far away we are from unusually productive reference the current UK debate about welfare reform/cuts.

Published in the Independent Blog

When reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind I had the idea to create a blog which would promote his ideas and apply them to British, Scottish and European politics.  If he is correct about the moral intuitions which drive our politics then the most surely be a global phenomenon applicable everywhere and in every time in history.  It would be an interesting exercise to apply Haidt’s theory to an historical event such as the English Civil War, but as I was pulling together material for this blog, John Rentoul in the Independent asked two questions in his newspaper blog which go straight to the insight of Haidt.  Rentoul quotes Blair asking whether we can go beyond left and right to right and wrong and also wonders simultaneously asks why economist echo the left right split especially on the subject of austerity.

I replied to him and he was interested enough in my note to publish it as a guest blog on the Independent Blog site, here, and it is posted below.