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Taking Working Class Toryism seriously

24 Apr

In just a few weeks’ time the British working class will turn out in unprecedented numbers in order to support a right wing Conservative government, marking an apotheosis of trends in which working people of modest means have enthusiastically endorsed a party pursuing an historical agenda which would seem on the surface at least to be hostile to their interests.

However I would say that as a leftist because I have already accepted it as self-evident that a Conservative agenda is not commensurate with the interests of those at the bottom of our socio-economic hierarchy. I have imbibed sufficient life experiences and also by way of exposure to arguments in books and articles over the years to convince me of the malevolence of their brand of free market fundamentalism.

So like many lefties I feel irked to say the least with that most heretical act of political deviancy, the perverse irrationalism of working class Toryism. Social networks are presently going into overdrive as Corbynistas are confronted with the rude reality as many of their friends and family have the temerity to circulate a number of pugnacious right wing memes. The echo chambers are being systemically punctured and we are being cumulatively disabused of the progressive habitats of alternative media.

And thereby hangs a dilemma for us to collectively confront, the left’s deep denial and impotence to comprehend, let alone combat, the reality of the great ‘heresy’.


Working class Toryism has a long standing history. Marx thought that the advent of universal suffrage equated with the ‘political supremacy of the working class’. 19th century parliamentarians fretted that the Reform Acts would destroy their dominance. This of course never happened and Conservatives like Disraeli were canny in cultivating blue collar Tories.

As maverick social thinkers like Michael Collins (labelled a ‘bête noir of the liberal left’ for his ‘destructive nostalgia) have argued with increasing plausibility, the instincts and sentiments of certain traditional working class communities are often far removed from the left liberal worldview. His discussion of the costermongers of old delineates their Tory and royalist sympathies and their antipathy to anything that might constitute a bohemian socialist import.

Collins also breaks rank with liberal niceties when he talks of culture and the salience of race and the white working class. For Collins, multiculturalism has been used as a tool by a metropolitan elite to censor and marginalise the indigenous white left behind, inviting a backlash that further strengthens forces on the far right.


Enoch Powell’s controversial Rivers of Blood speech from 1968 (described aptly by Stuart Hall’ essay as ‘A torpedo aimed at the boiler room of consensus’), was a powerful reminder of the traction and mass appeal of a right wing doyen. Socialists of the day had no choice but to acknowledge Powell’s formidable appeal to many workers at this time, particularly when organised labour in the form of the dockers and building workers marched in his support. As the International Socialists (forerunners of the Socialist Workers Party) conceded: The ready response to his speech has revealed the prevalence of racialist ideas among workers, inculcated by centuries of capitalism and imperialism

From Ragged Trousered bankruptcy to Vanguardism

Robert Tressell’s famous novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, is essentially an extended Socratic dialogue in the form of a novel, as the main protagonist, Frank Owen, engages with the congenital working class conservatism of his work colleagues. The novel is actually a useful reminder as to socialism’s problematic nature with its ostensible working class base. Owen has to go to great lengths to proselytise for the superior virtues and rationalism of socialism. Owen’s fellow workers are highly resistant to left wing ideas and generally happy to acquiesce in the status quo. This is surely a salutary reminder that such ideas are far from having a privileged locus and position in working class communities, there is no spontaneity or easy populist reception for socialism. On the contrary, socialism is now seen as a didactic radical import. Without the hoped for organic growth of working class left wing movements, this would have to be remedied by vanguardism, thereby negating one of the original premises of socialist thought, that working class emancipation had to be the work of the working class themselves. Unfortunately as the unfolding of history goes, that innovation didn’t work out particularly world.

Acknowledging the reality of a rightist working class

We urgently need to understand the limitations of conventional leftism and the elephant in the room – how the working classes have defected on mass to the right. There will be lots of heads banging against walls come June 9th, but as I have argued here, this is not a new problem. However each generation have to partake of this bitter fruit. However we are still compounded by our collective delusions and failure to understand the reality on the ground.


How will capitalism end? Book review

24 Apr

 ‘How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System’ by Wolfgang Streeck

(Verso, 2016) – book reviewed by Andrew Wallace, 22/03/17

Capitalism and Entropy

This is an intriguingly titled volume of essays, only the first of which is however devoted to the subject of the book’s title, namely a discussion concerning various scenarios in which we might contemplate the mortality of an ‘improbable social formation, full of conflicts and contradictions,…  unstable and influx and highly conditional on historically contingent and precarious supportive and well as constraining events and institutions’.

Streek takes his cue from what he considers a seminal text co-authored 3 years earlier by 5 distinctive thinkers. Streek’s titular essay then is very much a dialogue and assimilation of this work:-

Does Capitalism Have a Future? (2013) – Wallerstein, Collins, Mann, Derluguian, Calhoun.

The crisis scenarios under discussion are of course a distillation of Marxist, Keynesian and heterodox economists who remain critical of the key axioms of the so called free market, especially in the wake of the Great Recession (2008). The old spectres of market disequilibrium by overproduction or underconsumption are of course very much in contention, as is Marxist crises of profitability and the problems of modernity by obsolesce and the finite limits of land and labour. Weber and Schumpeter also introduced wider socio-economic themes inherent with bureaucratic sclerosis.

Streek suggests that various crisis scenarios from these 5 writers could be ‘aggregated into a diagnosis of multi-morbidity in which different disorders coexist and, more often than not, reinforce each other.’

No revolutionary alternative is required

A nice little irony at the centre of Streek’s thinking unfolds here. With capitalism in its contemporaneous super-turbo charged  ‘neoliberal’ platform, having so successfully vanquished all would be alternatives (which have typically rescued the system in revitalised form at various critical points in our past history) via its bleak credo of there is no alternative ‘capital realism’ – easier to imagine the end of the world than capitalism, now at the zenith of its apparent impenetrable hegemony, because it has exhausted the possibilities of renewal from reformist quarters, must now be forced kicking and screaming into a prolonged period of entropy.

We are hearing from many thinkers how automation, information technology and electronicisation will have profound implications for the middle classes in much the same way in which mechanisation did for the manual working class. With alarming implications for unemployment and ongoing secular stagnation or dramatic declines, this will add to the ongoing crisis of underconsumption and demand gap.

Streek has a nice line in irony as he notes our divided identities, located within our consumerist lifestyles, as voracious consumers of cheap clothes and electronic gadgets and household goods, we also put direct pressure on ourselves as producers, ‘accelerating the move of production abroad and thereby undermining (our) own wages, working conditions and employment.’

Neoliberalism has overextended itself, having cannibalised a lot of the soft underbelly, social capital and infrastructure vital to maintaining confidence and stability in the normative capitalist context.

Useful contribution to our Post-Liberal era

The other essays in the book discuss the nature in the shift of post war Keynesian democracy to the post democratic ordoliberalism of thinkers like Hayek, given the move to depoliticisation in many domestic spheres and of course international governance from the EU.

This is an interesting short volume of essays although some of the later offerings may come across as a little dry and technical. Streek is certainly making a very interesting contribution to ongoing discussions concerning the distinct post-liberal phase we seem to be entering with the marked rise of anti-globalisation sentiments. And whilst the political atrophy of the left continues, it is important to note that wider structural shifts in the nature of capitalism may mean that other practicalities apart from mere politics may force the hand of history.

Supporting Corbyn

14 Nov

Whilst I’m assuming that my increasingly heterodox non-conformism is hardly that of a typical profile for a Corbyn supporter, I am still at this stage supporting the man and his leadership of the Labour Party. I think I always did consider something like Corbynism as a complete fallacy, given the depth to which Labour Party had fallen in its utter capitulation to extreme free market ideology. Blair and his coterie represent the absolute nadir of sell-out to capitalism. In all earnestness I don’t really see how a left leadership can meet with much success on the back of a recalcitrant hard right parliamentary intake.

However given the totally unforeseen victory of Corbyn’s election to Labour leader in September 2015 I decided it was imperative of me to get off the prevaricating fence sitting of the last few years and actually support Corbyn’s candidature, given that I could relate to a good deal of his platform. At least his election would prove an interesting departure from the normal verities and might make for more interesting long term developments.

So I continue to support Corbyn although in many respects I can no longer sign up to lots of positions of the contemporary left. I also actually like Corbyn and his shadow chancellor McDonnell in spite of their various frailties, for politicians they seem to be actually on the side of decency as opposed to the standard careerist operators out there.

Corbyn’s importance to me lies in the fundamental break he represents with market fundamentalism. His own admittedly modest social democratic aspirations at least now represent a real attempt to break out of the cage of fatalism and capitalist realism. In many respects I think there are serious and drastic limitations to just what Corbynism can do for us and in terms of its own political mortality. Things do not unfortunately bode well for the left as indeed they haven’t for many years now. However in its own limited terms Corbynism has to be welcomed as a precursor.

I don’t have as much time to myself these days for this blog, I’ve not been able to write up anything for a good interval now. However if I do get the time and space I would like to consider some of the failings of the left, although as I would like to reiterate, I would like to do this in a supportive context as in many ways I continue to identify as a leftist, particularly in economic terms if less so on matters cultural.

I have also had the privilege of being able to do a bit of independent writing for a small left wing co-operative newspaper venture and hopefully I will also be able to carry over some of my articles from there onto this blog and maybe vice versa, as a forum to explore interesting issues.

Patternicity as a unifying principle of human ingenuity

31 May

I have been impressed over the last few years by the so called ‘cognitive turn’ in matters pertaining to philosophy and methodology in the social sciences and history. In particular I have been struck by the phenomena of ‘apophenia’ which serves as something of a lynchpin of psychological epistemology, helping us to see how humans have an inherent capacity for understanding, abstraction and interaction with their environment.

Michael Shermer has written extensively on apophenia; he prefers the labels of patternicity and agenticity to describe the mental process of reasoning and abstraction when the sentient brain is able to find meaningful patterns in the various phenomena it encounters. Whilst apophenia is generally characterised as a Type 1 cognitive error of a false positive (finding a meaningful pattern in randomised data), Shermer’s allied concepts of patternicity and agenticity underline our more generalised innate capacity to generate comprehension and purposiveness in our understandings of the external habitat, such meanings being fallacious in the type 1 sense or otherwise.

Shermer’s definition of patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.

Facial recognition is a primary example of how patternicity is crucially imbued into child development, with two black dots on a piece of cardboard able to prompt a smile in infants, whilst a single dot was not. And our wider ability for pattern recognition is suggestive of an a priori epistemology capacity to analyse complex data sets into pertinent categories.

Patternicity is a central component of human intellectual life, our ability to comprehend and project meanings onto the complex series of elements and phenomena that we encounter in our sentient existence. We are able to intellectualise and make causal inferences about our environment and society, and go on to project a vast range of typologies and classifications of phenomena that present to us in terms of interrelated components and meaningful systems.

The historian and historiographer E H Carr offered up his prescient take on how we begin to construct the temporal reality we inhabit, with a little bit of help from Talcott Parsons:

Professor Talcott Parsons once called science ‘a selective system of cognitive orientations to reality’. It might perhaps have been put more simply. But history is, among other things, that. The historian is necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.


The facts of history never come to us ‘pure’, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concerns should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historians who wrote it…


Our internal mental construction of the world and our ability to elucidate and build complex patterns and models is central to our ability to navigate around the terrain of our human environment as well as giving us some notions of existential reality. These elaborate belief systems comprise a range of interpretations and metaphysical possibilities, whilst the emergence of science grounded in empirical methodology allows us to critically scrutinise the corpus of knowledge that is now our common inheritance.

Politics and narrative

Our modern liberal politicians are still paying tribute of course to ideas of the ‘general will’ as set out by Rousseau. So the political class will constantly refer to polling and elections in order to divine an underlying set of narratives or to infer a mandate for this or that policy initiative.

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146)

Politicians understandably have been obsessed with the meaning of recent General Elections. In this respect the patterns thrown up by the election results are akin to a Rorschach test (a psychological assessment method that attempts to analyse personality by measuring interpretative responses to abstract inkblots). Naturally those parties that have their noses out in front in terms of the greater number of seats won and vote share will claim a mandate to legitimise their claim and accession to government. Conversely, those who have fallen behind and confined to minoritarian status will normally be pressed into a period of introspective policy reviews, pouring over the consequent psephological evaluations.

The general election of 2015 presents perhaps the most complex set of electoral results experienced thus far for the United Kingdom. The Labour Party mainstream and its new generation of would be leaders have concluded for the most part that their party has failed to keep traction with middle class mores and have found themselves reluctantly caught in a critical left wing vernacular, for which they now offer fulsome apologies.

Yet this narrative is questionable on a number of fronts, given that large segments of the electorate actually failed to turn out at all (for the most part presumably out of antipathy towards Miliband’s Labour Party), voted Green and SNP (a constituency explicitly to the left of Labour) or for UKIP (a party with intimations of protectionism and a strident rejection of metropolitan liberalism).

This divination of meanings from elections took on any number of metaphysical pretensions after the 2010 general election gave us one of our quirky hung parliaments that are occasionally but sparingly thrown up by first past the post. Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats were quick to run with the idea that the electorate had chosen in their infinite wisdom on the virtuous option of coalition. Some wry critics were good enough to remind us that coalition did not actually present as a literal option on the ballot paper.

The point being that a number of commentators had allowed themselves to succumb to the fallacy of composition and therefore excitedly attached a higher purpose, divining macro intentionality to the millions of individualised and conflicted (tactical) acts of voting. Like the Rorschach, commentators are wont to infer a super historical agenticity, a telos which guides our affairs in line with some as yet undisclosed mystical destination.

History is replete with these grandiose metaphysical memes, the fateful combination of providence and geo-politics to be found in America’s Manifest Destiny, or Germany’s Lebensraum.

The Liberal Delusion & Human Nature

8 Aug

Like John Marsh in The Liberal Delusion, I too have been beating a retreat from what I consider the flawed reasoning of social (and of course economic) liberalism. This critique seems particularly manifest in areas like crime and antisocial and problematic behaviours, where left/liberal takes of human nature seem to be in denial about our manifold capacity for decadence, wilful conflict and sadism.

Marsh also sees the erroneous intellectual mistakes of the European Enlightenment, with the evaluation of rationalism as the keystone in explanations of human nature. Whilst we do have a capacity for reason and rationalism, this is only party of our story. We are subject to a wide array of non-rational forces and biological drives.


Apollian: the rational side of human nature, tranquillity, predictability, orderliness

Dionysian:  the irrational side, attraction to creative chaos, passionate, dynamic experience)

[see An Introduction to the History of Psychology: B Hergenhahn,

Chpt: Romanticism and Existentialism]


The philosopher Nietzsche spoke in terms of Apollonian and Dionysian which equate with the two opposing principles of order and chaos. Nietzsche’s views defy any easy categorisation, but he tends to view the Dionysian in an affirmative context, although necessarily in dialectic fusion with the Apollonian – hence controlled passion. This was to combat the otherwise arid, lifeless prevailing rationalism of Western philosophy.

However it can be argued that our Dionysian inheritance which represents the most primal and barbarian of our natures, is also the most challenging and problematic.

Pleasure and sensation seeking: Physiological peaks – Dark Side of the Brain

We have become very adept at providing any number of stimuli for the purpose of gaining physiological ‘highs’, states of arousal that offer varying degrees of physical gratification for the individuals concerned. We have learned that some of these states are delivered by what initially appears as counter-intuitive, by the introduction of unpleasant discordant stimuli (i.e. pain, uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situations, fear-inducing scenarios and so on).

So people ‘get a kick’ out of being scared, which we can see is widely catered for with theme park rollercoasters, adrenaline fuelled extreme sports like bungee jumping, to more sedate but still fear laden pursuits like watching horror or disaster films, whereby the pleasures to be gained by this low-grade torture are altogether more vicarious.

This compulsive drive for sensation expresses itself with variety and intensity, for some individuals it is obviously far more pronounced and problematically addictive. They become restless and bored and are driven to seek out the necessary ingredient that will provide due satisfaction.

The fact that such drives lend themselves to addiction is also combined with the limitless possibilities afforded by external stimulants in the shape of drugs, be they classified soft or hard. This inevitably takes us into the terrain of crime, since some individuals begin to be so overwhelmed by physical addictions which they are no longer able to moderate or achieve a level of self-control. With an uncontainable dependency on illicit drugs, many individuals will of course turn to crime in order to fuel their habits and this behaviour is self-reinforcing.

Human nature exists on a vast and barely comprehensible continuum of possibility, with the psychic yens of individuals extending into infinite contingencies. Whilst we strive for kinship and attempt to forge bonds of mutual interests and sympathies with one another, at other points of this spectrum it would seems the chasm between certain individuals thrown up at random is insurmountable.

And so when it comes to our capacity for spectacle and stimulation of the senses, which range from the timid and retreatist, preferring modest intakes of sensory stimulation, to the most brazen of sensation and adventure seekers, with their penchants for extreme sport or debauchery.

Fiction writers like J G Ballard and Anthony Burgess have explored this subterranean feature of violence and psychopathy wired into our human nature, whilst for crime and horror writers, milking this terrain is their stock- in- trade. There is a perennial fascination with low level criminology and the gruesome pathology case studies wheeled out on a never ending conveyer belt of horror. Not for nothing are crime dramas and sensationalist documentaries the staple fillers of evening television schedules. We remain appalled, titillated and entranced by our species capacity for transgression and pushing the boundaries of decadent spectacle.

Each individual represents a unique psychodynamic personality with a propensity for further intellectual growth and psychic development. We thrive and prosper with a sufficiently stimulating environment that poses challenges for us; we can talk about an innate capacity for adventurism. Keeping balance to our often contradictory psychological requirements is often fraught with difficulty, and the possibilities of becoming unbalanced and off kilter remain ever present. Societies thus evolve with a variety of sophisticated mechanisms, both officially sanctioned and illicit, to cater for our Dionysian whimsies.

It seems in recent decades that we have given vent and free reign to these impulses which quickly become toxic if they are not to be contained within acceptable boundaries. Since liberals refuse to accept the unfortunate noxious fall-out from their creed of non-interventionism, we are all picking up the tab for much greater levels of anti-social behaviour. Conservatives, at least with a small ‘c’, seem to have a firmer grip on the unpleasant truths of human nature, which require the ministrations of the state to prevail over narrow individual concerns in the final analysis. However latter-day right wing parties seem to have largely jettisoned their erstwhile statist paternalism in favour of the all-embracing cosmology of neoliberalism, a creed which is concerned to divest itself of the public realm at the heart of the nation-state, in favour of the unfettered, borderless global market.

With the most problematic and violent of behaviours concentrated on young men, it seems some of the issues can be understood profitably by perspectives from psychopathology. Alternative liberal explanations which seek to understand crime and deviance by way of a frustration of social justice and manifest inequalities, fail to offer credible accounts of such behaviour when the context is relatively affluent with high disposal incomes for cars and alcohol, some conspicuous markers of problem behaviour.

Many youths seem to be subconsciously acting out a psychodrama of sorts, perhaps in a quest to find a suitable father/authority figure who can finally command the respect and deference by virtue of providing the resolute strength and character of the hitherto absent paternalism. If youth is a time of episodic experimental insubordination, then they instinctually strive towards a need for suitable parameters of structure and discipline that will serve them for the rest of their adult lives.

John Marsh says that religion possesses a crucial quality of reflective transcendence, which provides our mortal selves with a sense of something greater than our hollowed out liberal acquisitiveness. Liberalism is premised on rational, autonomous individuals. Because it is de-anchored from collectivist thinking and practices, it becomes relativistic and ultimately nihilistic, because it throws up contradictory positions that are unable to be reconciled (liberal tolerance of illiberal intolerance!). It is therefore unable to sufficiently safeguard its once distinct version of the good life, leaving the gates wide upon to the cultural vandals and barbarians who bring renewed possibilities of anarchy into the community.

So social disorder and anomie can be read as outcomes of maladaptive practices sponsored by a decadent, highly commercialised society, socialising its audiences with increasing sophistication, a la corporate capture. Commercialism has given license to disturbingly violent video games (glorified rape and murder dystopias/simulacrums), gangsta rap, violence laden film and cinema and pornography. We seem to be embracing the possibilities of another licentious epoch with the bloodletting and catharsis of gladiatorial combat. Although our modern bread and circuses are initially confined to elaborate computer software, there is the obvious concern about the consequent desensitisation and overspill into actual real life events, with an ongoing debate about how influential and malign these activities are.

Grand Theft Auto franchise self evidentially finds it corollary in the consequent carjackings, boy racers, joy riding, drive-by shootings and other general mayhem. To be fair GTA is probably at the milder end of the spectrum for this genre, although it has the biggest profile. What is not in contention however is the distance travelled in the interim from the likes of the famous Hays Code, whereby such a culture now openly celebrates in lingering gory detail the grim spectacle and carnage of ruthless criminality, a franchise which positively embraces the viewpoint of the criminal at the centre of the narrative.


Man on a bus…

26 Jun

“A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count
himself as a failure”.
The above quote is actually apocryphal, no hard evidence exists that
Thatcher ever came out with this, although one can imagine it is in
keeping with the sentiments of her general take on all things to emanate
from the public sector.

The great car economy naturally takes precedence, whilst the distinctly
inferior means of public transportation are left to whither on the vine.
This second class mode of getting from A to B is very much the preserve
of those unable to buy into the private space and convenience of their
own transport. Public transport is for those without choice, having to
take the no frills undercarriage because of their limited funds. There
is no glamour to be found on a typical municipal bus run, with the basic
interior construction geared over to functionality and economy.

Public transport and buses teach us about the relative impoverishment of
public spaces, those places whereby we are obliged to temporarily reside
alongside a gathering of (usually) anonymous individuals who are also
pressed into a reliance of public service. This public space brings with
it all kinds of individuals of different ages, ethnicities and
backgrounds, who are forced to cohabit in tighter proximities than they
would normally choose given the freedom to do so.

I have to confess here than I’m more than a participant observer here,
as being a non-driver I am also reliant to various degrees on public
transport, particularly in the last couple of years whereby I am now
obliged to commute several miles by bus to my place of employment. So
I’ve only been too well aware of the infamous disparaging quote at the
top of my article, its gratuitous insult and yet for all that, isn’t
there something in this?

It’s at these kind of mundane instances that a profound realisation of
just how dysfunctional our humanity is, and therefore the gulf between
high minded pretensions of leftism and the reality of our pitiful
species-being nature, more Hobbes than Marx.

Leftists and particularly those of an environmental bent like George
Monbiot are obviously keen to promote public transport as a necessary
corrective to the damage inflicted by fossil-fuel dependent transport,
particularly in the alarming proliferation of car ownership that is
bringing gridlock and meltdown to our national road network.
However how will such policies manage to side-step the elephant in the
room, the massive aversion that people have towards public transport.
People do not want to have to compromise on their personal space with
strangers, buses as they actually are, are marked by cramped conditions,
less than ideal standards of cleanliness and hygiene, with uncomfortable
seating and upholstery. Plus they are slow and cumbersome (start/stop at
every few hundred yards for people to board or disembark) and to cap it
all we have to contend with a variety of strangers, some of whom are
usually taxing for all the variety of exotic foibles that they are want
to present.

My regular commute takes in a fair number of regular irritants. Take for
instance the young woman college student who suffers from some serious
behavioural habits, given her incessant rhythmic movement disorder, as
she slams violently to and fro against the back of the seat, with the
unfortunate person sat in the seat behind having to contend with the
uncomfortable aggressive jolting, with all surrounding fixtures and
fittings subject to the intensity of this ongoing torture.

Then we have the man and wife odd couple, obviously down at heel types
battered and grizzled over the years. The wife (I’m guessing in her late
60s, early 70s) has this strange pelmet hairstyle that looks
suspiciously like a third rate charity shop toupee, with heavy rim set
glasses reminiscent of sixties era Michael Caine come Harry Palmer (or
even Dimitri Shostakovich heaven forbid!). This woman takes it upon
herself to engage absolutely anyone in her immediate presence (including
myself on occasion) with mundane chunks of conversation, while her
husband nods on, happy to indulge his wife’s overfriendliness.

Factor in the noisy teenage gangs, although the majority of them seem
happy to clamber up to the top deck.
I usually head for the back seat of the bottom deck if room allows, as
it normally affords me more room in the event of the bus overcrowding.
Given that I am not completely hemmed in on the back corner. However
even at this particular locale, there are habitual traps, such as de
rigueur casual encampment of legs stretched out on adjoining seating,
typically although not exclusively by young men.
The front of the bus has now been redesigned in view of the DDA and
Equality Act to accommodate wheelchairs and infant pushchairs. However
this now means reduced seating at the front of the bus and more
impediments to negotiate for the rest of the travellers. There is only
capacity for two pushchairs or one wheelchair at any one time. So if any
one bus journey finds itself saddled with two buggy users, the bus
driver is unlikely to ask them to decamp should a wheelchair user be
waiting at the bus stop.

Occasionally there are those with profound physical and behavioral
disabilities who in all earnestness are not suited to the rigor of
public transport. However modern protocols have dictated a
‘mainstreaming’ and ‘inclusive’ agenda, whereby we all learn to
accommodate and tolerate each other. While this sounds a laudable aim,
I’m not convinced of its practicality or suitability. Certain
individuals will necessarily be high maintenance due to profundity of
disability and potentially problematic behaviour.

A recent journey consisted of a severely disabled young man in a
wheelchair placed next to an unconnected infant in a buggy. The disabled
man went on to produce a whole cacophony of wailing and grunting which
naturally was very traumatising to the young child at his side. All in
the spirit of inclusiveness! A better course of action surely would be
to provide disabled individuals with the means to purchase in their own
specialised transport conducive to their means. Likewise parents with
young children should be given taxi vouchers. However politically
correct protocols would deem this as reactionary and separatist
discrimination. Equity was not supposed to mean that we treat everyone
the same regardless of circumstances. On the contrary, people need to be
treated as individuals, each person’s needs being particular to their
own contingencies. It may be that wheelchair users are not conducive to
buses, regardless of the number of adaptations, or the adaptations
required would then render said bus unsuitable to the non-disabled.
Bus stations themselves have typically until late in the day been grim
and grungy forbidding spaces. And from early evening onwards they become
unforgiving spaces of insecurity that one enters at one’s own risk. I
have enough memories from child and early adulthood of being accosted
and threatened by yob gangs. I do commend however the new wave of bus
stations with brighter transparent interiors and the more visible
presence of staff and information.

On a concluding note, in an age of mass democracy I guess we get the
buses (and public services) that we deserve. With a large underclass of
individuals who are by inclination disrespectful to public property, the
wider society is unlikely to invest more in comfortable surroundings,
only to see wanton vandalism and destruction of public assets. Therefore
two tier models of services naturally arise, a residual basic platform
to keep afloat the necessary functional infrastructure for those unable
to afford the second tier, a premium service (private transport,
chauffeurs, taxis, coaches, first class rail travel) for those of
adequate means. And such divisions are legitimised by the behaviour of
the contending classes, a grasping self-serving middle class, anxious to
maintain their distinctions, social standing and privileges, and a
subject class of toilers, put upon to keep the whole enterprise afloat.

This latter working class also have to contend with a large pool of
dysfunctional individuals who continually provide the diet of spectacle
and debauchery which is used to mark the perimeters of what is
acceptable and what is not (deserving/undeserving). Public transport as
a conspicuous public space is deeply shaped by this societal structure.

Supermarket chicanery

8 Apr

Supermarkets have come to play a central role in our urban lives, having supplanted the once traditional corner shops and independent retailers who existed among our formerly tight knit communities. The economics of capitalism foretold of this development with the increasingly industrial sized operations of all forms of economic activity delivering such bounty from its propitious grand scales.


Supermarkets were thus foretold as a necessary outcome of forward momentum, the realisation of innovation and the quest for ever greater efficiencies. Alas the social ramifications of these corporate behemoths is not without its downside, since the bottom line of profit maximisation is not always to be reconciled with the social good. There is now an ever growing body of critics ready to articulate the unhappy anomie that is seen in the wake of the supermarkets, such as the damage to the small scale intimate hubs of the neighbourhood, the liquidation of the shopkeeper, the butcher, the grocer and the baker and the valuable social capital that this entailed, in favour of the impersonal and single minded pursuit of market dominance.


Supermarkets have pursued their dominance with an impressive array of controversial ploys, inherited from the tried and tested playbook of corporate psychology. The sophistry of corporate esoterica has been well attested to in recent years, from the excellent insights provided by documentary film maker Adam Curtis (The Century of the Self 2002) to fictionalised accounts of the burgeoning 1960s advertising industry of Madison Avenue courtesy of television series Mad Men.


Applied psychology – customer manipulation

Psychologists have long been in the pay of corporations who are eager to put to work any knowledge of our cognitive processes that can be exploited to the purpose of getting their consumers to part with their cash and bolster profit margins. Aside from the nature and sourcing of the physical commodities in question and their eventual realisation as a monetary transaction, prices themselves are seldom straightforward as an expression of individual unit cost.


Retailers have introduced several complexities that make for fluctuating and variable costs, so that particular items are no longer uniformly priced across the spectrum, but may vary with time of place and may more controversially introduce discriminatory pricing for different types of customers, such as single household versus family. Supermarkets have introduced offers in the form of ‘Buy one get one free’ (BOGOF) and ‘3 for 2’


The weekly grip website below alludes to how BOGOFs have evolved as a means for supermarkets to ‘game’ price regulations concerning sales. Such sleight of hand and duplicitous practice are second nature to the marketeers, able to promote the bountiful joys of 3 for 2’s as a boon to larger families, whilst the obvious slights against the single person who is unhappy to modify their consumption habits to fit in with this social engineering, is palpably ignored. Plus there is the associated well established problem of food waste with regards to perishable products, where these discriminatory tariffs are pushed most aggressively.


I’ve long thought that it is precisely at this level of practice, regarding the ideological kernel or paradigm for the genius of capitalism whereby we are hoodwinked into supporting what would otherwise be unacceptable. What appears as a passing marketing ruse in the blink of an eye has gone on to capture and stifle the imaginary possibilities. These techniques are repeated ad nauseam thus pre-empting any likelihood for dissonance. It requires more critical systemic evaluations to challenge the jolly blustering of sales strategies.

The psychological pricing theory is based on one or more of the following hypotheses:

  • Judgments of numerical differences are anchored on left-most digits, a behavioral phenomenon referred to as the left-digit anchoring effect (see Thomas and Morwitz 2005). This hypothesis suggests that people perceive the difference between 1.99 and 3.00 to be closer to 2.01 than to 1.01 because their judgments are anchored on the left-most digit.
  • Consumers ignore the least significant digits rather than do the proper rounding. Even though the cents are seen and not totally ignored, they may subconsciously be partially ignored. Keith Coulter, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Graduate School of Management, Clark University suggests that this effect may be enhanced when the cents are printed smaller (for example, $1999).[2]
  • Fractional prices suggest to consumers that goods are marked at the lowest possible price.
  • When items are listed in a way that is segregated into price bands (such as an online real estate search), price ending is used to keep an item in a lower band, to be seen by more potential purchasers.

The theory of psychological pricing is controversial. Some studies show that buyers, even young children, have a very sophisticated understanding of true cost and relative value and that, to the limits of the accuracy of the test, they behave rationally. Other researchers claim that this ignores the non-rational nature of the phenomenon and that acceptance of the theory requires belief in a subconscious level of thought processes, a belief that economic models tend to deny or ignore. Research using results from modern scanner data is mixed.

Now that many customers are used to odd pricing, some restaurants and high-end retailers psychologically-price in even numbers in an attempt to reinforce their brand image of quality and sophistication.

…the relatively slow moving, rational part of your brain catches up…  and recognizes that a penny’s difference means nothing, but the snap judgment has already been made and perceptions of price are now subtly biased. As with most cognitive biases, we’re especially susceptible to the left digit effect when the rational part of our minds are busy or tired.

Bulk pricing strategies are therefore introduced to play to the homo economicus mind-set, flattering our marginal propensity to purchase this or that item because of its supposed benevolent intent – Buy two, get two free: On the surface it sounds eminently reasonable, who would not want to be gifted with no strings attached. But appearances can be deceptive. If there are discounts to be had, why can’t they be transparently rendered at individual unit cost, rather than the bulk buy ploy? Could it be that that following on from B2,G2F, the aggregate 4 unit purchase might be closer to the normative price when a little mental conversion gives us the new effective costing at individual unit level. Subject to a little bit of obfuscation in this pricing gambit and hey presto, the customer is hoodwinked into thinking they are being gifted when in fact they are being gamed by sophisticated stratagems.


Some of these sleight of hands sound like they have been lifted straight out of the Government’s Nudge Unit! These refer to a batch of initiatives designed to micro-manage certain aspects of behaviour towards benevolent outcomes.


The following mission statement is to be found on the current website as of March 2014.

What we do

The Behavioural Insights Team, often called the ‘Nudge Unit’, applies insights from academic research in behavioural economics and psychology to public policy and services.

In addition to working with almost every government department, we work with local authorities, charities, NGOs, private sector partners and foreign government, developing proposals and testing them empirically across the full spectrum of government policy.


We are responsible for:

  • encouraging and supporting people to make better choices for themselves
  • considering the application of behavioural science to policy design and delivery
  • advancing behavioural science in public policy
  • championing scientific methodology to bring greater rigour to policy evaluation

The Nudge Unit are using the by now well established body of retail practices that have been built up over the last few decades, essentially applied psychology. In supermarket terms, this might represent itself as strategic placement of healthy foods at certain flashpoints, placing lower calorie and low fat items on prominent front shelving and so on. However this limited paternalism is likely to run contrary to the supermarket’s penchant for running in exactly the opposite direction, given the by now notorious product placement of high calorie, sugary foods in close proximity to the checkout, in order to cash in on the notorious pester power of young children.


Governments of the day are typically caught in the bind between appeasing private sector prerogatives, the imperative to maximise profitability and then managing the consequences of the fallout, the various externalities to market failure that are visited on the rest of society such as rising obesity rates and poor diets and general impoverishment. So the micro-managed gestures towards the idea of a higher social good are likely to be lost in the overall dominance of capitalist prerequisites that operate solely to the criteria of expansion and maintaining overall dominance.