Home > Politics > The Gorilla in the Room

The Gorilla in the Room

Last week I was reading about an experiment in neuroscience. It involved a video made by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in which a group of young people passed a basketball back and forth to each other. Midway through the video a person in a gorilla suit walks into frame and waves wildly to the camera and then walks off again. An audience of viewers watching this video were asked to count the number of times that the ball was passed. Typically about half the viewers had no recollection whatsoever of the man in the gorilla suit. The purpose of the experiment was to examine how the human brain focuses on specific things at the expense of context. My own purpose is humbler: it is a useful and amusing example of how easily people can be distracted from the important things that are happening around them.

Distraction is an idea that is very much at the heart of neoliberal politics of the last three decades, and it is playing a very important role right now. These distractions are multiple and mutually reinforcing and they form what I call the architecture of resentment. The architecture of resentment operates by deflecting emotional energy away from the powerful and towards the powerless. It is the collection of institutional frameworks and rhetorical arguments of the right, and makes heavy use of scapegoating, something I touched upon at the end of last year as being a dangerous and slippery slope.



Changes to welfare mechanisms over the last few decades have been instrumental in shaping the context of the architecture of resentment. There have been many changes of which we can only examine a couple. The erosion of welfare provisions and the deregulation of the labour market (so-called “worker flexibility”) create the context for deep insecurity – a killer of clear thought if ever there was one. This is standard capitalistic practice: internalise the benefits (profits) and externalise the costs and risks (by pushing them onto workers). The introduction of means-testing to welfare entitlements adds two things to this. First, it stigmatizes those on the “wrong” side of an artificial dividing line: they are made conspicuous by their relationship to the line and by intrusive and humiliating bureaucratic procedures, bringing about the sense that they have been publicly judged to be failures. Second, a deep sense of resentment is created for those who fall just on the “right” side of the line – those who are most like those on the other side of the line but who are disqualified from help. There are few more effective techniques than to set the weak against the slightly weaker. This is a standard “divide and conquer” tactic, neighbour against neighbour, brother against brother, a certain corroder of solidarity.

The psychological effect of this divisive strategy is clear, and is illustrative of the general strategy employed in the architecture of resentment. The recipients who are eligible for state assistance are sometimes emotively described, by those who are not, as having a “culture of entitlement”, a term leaked into the public consciousness by the architects of the architecture of resentment. What is typically meant by “culture of entitlement” is that those people think that they are entitled to welfare benefits when they shouldn’t be: maybe they should have to earn their entitlement, and so forth. I have heard this said by quite a few otherwise reflective people, and it is obviously a catchy enough tune. What I believe lies at the bottom of this is actually the opposite: the active force here is not outrage that those others receive those benefits but that this person is barred from them even if they were in a situation where they need help or have earned them. This is the ultimate effect of means testing. This division creates a schism, an asymmetry, an alterity. It is of a kind with the current treatment of public sector pensions and wages, where groups of opposition are fabricated solely in order to inspire and maintain resentment.


Rhetorical claims

While the institutional components of the architecture of resentment help to reproduce and expand the basis of distraction, the real meat lies in the rhetoric. The rhetoric is a mixture of catchy slogans (like “the politics of envy”, “culture of dependency”, or, as above, “the culture of entitlement”), as well as more direct claims about groups in society.

Let’s start with the claims. These claims take the form of assertions or stories about groups. At some points in history these claims take the form of racist slogans; at others they deflect attention away from domestic affairs towards outside groups – Muslims, commies, etc. More commonly they refer to vulnerable groups within a society and today the most popular claims are against those receiving welfare support from the state. (Note the mutual reinforcement between these claims and the institutions above: welfare claimants are morally deficient in some way or another and so we must put them through the crucible of shame before granting support).

Sometimes these stories contain elements of truth: the truthful part is rarely interesting or important. Often the claims are more in the mould of urban-myths, wild extrapolations from isolated cases (and usually without a clear understanding of even those cases). What little truth there is in such claims is distorted by the use of emotive and loaded language; marginally truthful data are misrepresented through, again, loaded labelling (the rhetoric of dependency is a common example); a spade is called a parasite, and we cannot understand the nature of a spade if we believe that it is sucking us dry. And sometimes stories are simply fabricated. Reagan famously invented his welfare queen. The UK Conservative party insists on the existence of families that have been on welfare for three generations (a tale they inherited from Blair), although, like the Yeti, not a single bit of evidence has ever been produced nor a single case found. In the last few weeks the UK press have been salivating over a case of supposed “welfare scrounging” involving a woman, her eleven children, and a horse living in apparent profligacy in a supposed mansion. On closer inspection (unsurprisingly not so much covered in the press) it turns out that she was allocated her house (not quite as nice as implied) by a housing group, part of the program of welfare privatisation.

Scapegoating works the better the less that the scapegoated group can respond. So it is unsurprising to find increasing occurrences of hybrid compound vulnerabilities being targeted: the latest in the UK is the notion of “welfare tourism” – our country, apparently, is being remorselessly milked by foreigners moving here in order to receive welfare; a few months ago it was obese welfare recipients; the current obsession with disability benefits is of the same character.

The usual definition of “hate speech” is publications and statements that deliberately lie or misrepresent facts about an ascriptively linked group in order to stimulate ill feeling toward them. By this definition the scapegoating of welfare recipients is clearly hate speech. Welfare scapegoating is the new racism; Barbara Ellen of the Guardian describes “shaming the poor” as the “new bloodsport”. It is hate speech because the claims are very often false. As often as not, the claims are simply the manufactured products of the fertile (and extraordinarily well funded) imaginations of right-wing think tanks, who lack any transparency and represent the views of a tiny, unaccountable, anti-democratic, and invisible elite. Ellen, in her article, refers to a recent report jointly published by a number of British church groups including the Methodists, the United Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland and the Baptist Union. The study, The Lies We Tell Ourselves, is to be welcomed and systematically debunks many of the most popular and corrosive welfare myths in Britain today. It addresses such catchy classic hits as “welfare recipients are lazy”, “welfare recipients have an easy life”, and “welfare recipients caused the deficit”. These myths are simply untrue and we have a duty to make sure that people know this.


The Politics of Envy

So much for the popular rhetorical claims. What about the slogans? There are far too many to choose from. But in order to give it some decent attention I will focus on just one. Last week I attended a debate on the (de)merits of the UK government’s austerity program, with particular attention to the human rights implications of slashing public spending on welfare programs. One of the defenders of austerity, a member the right-wing think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, blamed anti-austerity sentiment on the “politics of envy”. This is an old favourite among conservatives. The general idea is that the poor are envious of the success of those better off than them; envy is neither virtuous nor admirable; ipso facto the poor and those who argue for them are not just wrong but also a little bit wicked.

The argument from envy has a long history in conservative thought. It can be found in just about any right-wing thinker. For illustrative purposes I’ll focus on two. The daddy of neoliberalism, Friedrich von Hayek was an early and enthusiastic contributor to the “politics of envy” rhetoric.  He tells us that:

When we inquire into the justification of these demands [for economic justice] we find that they rest on the discontent that the success of some people often produces in those that are less successful, or, to put it bluntly, on envy. (Hayek, 2006, pp. 81-2)

…and, again:

In a wealthy community the only justification its members can have for insisting on further advantages is that there is much private wealth that the government can confiscate and redistribute and that men who constantly see such wealth being enjoyed by others will have a stronger desire for it than those who know of it only abstractly, if at all. (Hayek, 2006, p. 88)

…and once more with feeling:

[Unconstrained economic liberty is] a condition of freedom so essential that it must not be sacrificed to the gratification of our sense of justice or of our envy. (Hayek, 1984, p. 30)

Robert Nozick, another demagogue of the libertarian right, is even plainer in his appeals. He devotes many pages of his libertarian these, Anarchy, State, and Utopia to the theme of envy, only a sample of which we have space for here. He writes:

Is it so implausible to claim that envy underlies this conception of justice, forming part of its root notion? (Nozick, 2009, p. 229)

…and ten pages later he is still going strong:

The envious person, if he cannot (also) possess a thing (talent, and so on) that someone else has, prefers that the other person not have it either. The envious man prefers neither one having it, to the other’s having it and his not having it. (Nozick, 2009, p. 239)

These are mighty big claims (and, I will add, undemonstrated (probably indemonstrable)). But why should we accept such ideas? Much of the best and most influential egalitarian writing comes from people who are, or were, fairly comfortably situated – surely it is implausible that they are all that envious of the wealthiest? Many of them (those that Nozick, for example, is responding to) are accomplished academics and are surely clever enough to have become rich themselves if they so choose? And how can a person be envious on behalf of someone else anyway? Why do conservatives find it so darned hard to accept that these people may be acting on moral impulses wholly different to envy?

And is it not also plausible that it is the wealthy and powerful who are acting out of envy, at least as much as the poor? I don’t think that Danny Dorling is wrong when he describes “the everyday politics of the envy and fear of those who had come to know a little luxury, who wanted much more as a result and who lived in constant uneasy fear of it being taken away” (Dorling, 2010, p. 138).

And, we should ask, is the envy of the poor, assuming it to exist, wholly their own moral failing? The late, great E. F. Schumacher is clear on this:

Excessive wealth, like power, tends to corrupt. Even if the rich are not ‘idle rich’, even when they work harder than anyone else, they work differently, apply different standards, and are set apart from common humanity. They corrupt themselves by practicing greed, and they corrupt the rest of society by provoking envy. (Schumacher, 1993, p. 236)

In fact, envy plays a critical (and lamentable) role in capitalist society. It is the oil without which the consumerism that keeps the rich rich would have no grip. Throughout neoliberal thought imitation, emulation and covetousness – envy! – act as drivers for market growth and innovation. Envy lies at the very heart of modern consumerism. We are continually reminded that we are inadequate and that the solution is to buy products x, y, and z if we wish to be functioning wholes like everyone else. It would seem that envy is perfectly fine when directing people to act in the interests of the wealthiest – it is only morally objectionable when it works against them.

We can, and should, turn the “politics of envy” rhetoric on its head. “[E]nvy, resentment, and hatred,” Michael Walzer points out, “…are the common consequences of hierarchical domination.”(Walzer, 2004, p. 130). Envy is not wrong because it opposes inequality; inequality – of power, in the form of domination – is wrong because it produces envy along with a multitude of other evils. Envy is a mark of poison in society – a symptom of a greater problem. We should not seek to punish envy but to relieve it. A true “politics of envy” has the admirable goal of removing the reasons for envy, and limiting the mechanisms that utilise it for personal gain.


The Gorilla in the Room

So let’s talk about the gorilla in the room… It has been running around while we have been distracted with the busy work of worrying about non-existent bogeymen: welfare scroungers; welfare dependency; the “politics of envy”; the “culture of entitlement” etc etc etc. What has it been doing while we were busily looking elsewhere? Under the disguise of talk about liberty and state interference, these groups who claim to want to remove “big government” from business have actually done a great deal to get big business into government. We should be clear about what this means. When government intervenes in business – say, in the form of regulation – this is part of, and entirely compatible with, the democratic ideal: as thinkers such as Karl Polanyi have pointed out, government intervention is necessary to legitimate the exercise of the powers of capitalism: it is the safety-valve on private power. On the other hand when business interferes with government – when “money is speech”, when “corporations are people”, both forms of power and both concentrated into the hands of a small and unaccountable minority – then what we have is simply corruption and nothing more. It is ironic that libertarian demagogues have derided government regulation and action by highlighting the risk that some powerful individuals will use the state to garner advantages for themselves; in fact, what has happened is that the efforts to “shrink the state” and reduce government action has simply weakened democracy and brought about that very evil it was supposed to prevent. The state hasn’t been shrunk, it has just been retasked.

A final, somewhat bittersweet, thought for those who have made it this far (attention spans are yet another casualty of the architecture of resentment). All of this places us in a difficult situation. If we address the false claims, the fairytales, the resentment-producing rhetoric, and slogans then we have, in a way, handed a victory to their purveyors. We are necessarily on the back foot and our responses are a rearguard action. It costs them little to produce and spread these narratives. It costs us a great deal to oppose them. The point of the architecture of resentment, as I started with, is to distract us. By investing our time and energy in responding to such nonsense we risk giving them credence while we squander our valuable resources on defensive acts rather than putting them to the better use of formulating solutions to today’s problems. But, nevertheless, I firmly believe that we do have the moral duty of opposing these tactics. We must continue to push back, and we must do so much more firmly than we have done so far: when faced with a cheap slogan or a defamatory “fact” we must demand the evidence in a neutral form, the source of the evidence, and the funders of the sources of evidence. We shouldn’t simply accept the conservative-assigned role of dog-fetching-the-stick: instead we should be beating them with their own sticks. We need to stop letting unaccountable right-wing think tanks control the language of the discussion and we must call out complicity with them wherever we find it. We must stare the gorilla in the room directly in the eyes and point it out to everyone around us.

Works Cited:

Dorling, D. (2010). Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. The Policy Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1984). Individualism and Economic Order. The University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, F. A. (2006). The Constitution Of Liberty. Routledge Classics.

Nozick, R. (2009). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Blackwell Publishing.

Schumacher, E. F. (1993). Small Is Beautiful. Vintage.

Walzer, M. (2004). Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism. Yale University Press.


  1. Doug Hazelrigg
    March 6, 2013 at 5:25 pm

    Doesn’t a bigger state (i.e more spending and more public employees) make it EASIER for private interests to obtain favorable treatment? I know in the past we’ve talked about the potential for a smaller state to leave a power vacuum that private entities will surely fill, but today in the USA we have a large state — in fact THE largest in the world: $6.14 trillion total gov’t spending in 2010… and yet we have, as you correctly point out, a government that is largely in the grips of private interests. With regards to “shrinking the state” I’m not sure which state you’re referring to… it sure as hell isn’t the United States government, which since just 2000 has almost doubled in size — by EVERY measure (spending, employment, legislation, regulation)

    (A recent study (forget source, probably a bunch of neo-liberals) found that the average daily after-tax income (wages, tips, benefits) of a worker in the United States is now considerably less than the average, non-taxed income (direct aid + benefits) of people who rely on government assistance. Do you feel that sort of situation is better for a society?

    Also, I’m a bit perplexed by your objection to means-testing… means-testing has been suggested as a way to SAVE under-funded entitlement programs, by denying benefits to those who do not really need them. But you’re more worried about whatever “psychic effect” this sort of “stratification” might have on recipients. Which I find quite silly. Nobody is forcing anyone to accept assistance; I’m sure whatever angst they might momentarily feel when their check arrives quickly dissipates as they sit down to a nice taxpayer-funded dinner 🙂

    • March 6, 2013 at 5:45 pm

      A bigger state doesn’t necessarily make it easier in theory. In practice the so-called “smaller” states have been much more vulnerable to abuse. A larger state – by number of employees – by definition disperses the power of the state over more people. What matters is not the size of the state but how accountable it is – and it is the accountability that deteriorates (dramatically) in a neoliberal society. It’s no secret that “small state” governments haven’t shrunk the state – as I said, this was a screen for retasking. The outsourcing of welfare functions has, nearly universally in most countries, cost far more and resulted in far less accountable services – the UK is a veritable case study on this problem. And it has simply left the most vulnerable even more so – against both the state and private interests. Welfare provisions are a defence -against- the state as much as anything.

      Your middle paragraph example highlights solme of the points I have made in the past about universal basic income, and also partly addresses your issue about means-testing. The dividing line of means-testing creates perverse situations. What the US government needs to do is to stop subsidising underpaid work – here and over your side a large part (the largest here and probably in US too) of welfare payments is actually to working people, to the benefit of the shareholders of the likes of WalMart.

      Means-testing costs a lot of money. A helluva lot of money. It is an extraordinarily bad way of saving money and very often costs more than it saves. But yes, I am concerned on the stigmatic effects. Not silly at all. And many people who need assistance refuse it because of the stigma rather than claiming it as a citizens right. This is truly awful. (And your reference to “a nice taxpayer-funded dinner” is entirely what the sort of uninformed crap that whole article is about – consider yourself called out 🙂 ).

  2. Doug Hazelrigg
    March 7, 2013 at 3:52 am

    The attractive thing about UBI is its unconditional nature, that is, it requires no government intrusiveness or costly administration; if you’re a citizen, you get a check. Where I think it fails, and badly, is its unpredictable aspects, chiefly how would it act as a disincentive for people to work. I know you believe that most people want to work, and I agree; but that’s only a belief — the practical effect might be much different.

    There’s also the funding question. By my calculation, a $10,000 benefit given to 300 million people would cost $3 trillion (not counting tax givebacks) (10 x 103) x (300 x 106) = 3 x 1012

    • March 7, 2013 at 9:35 am

      Yes, simplicity and non-intrusion (two supposed virtues by the standards of neoliberal literature!) are important. They are not the only things that matter. My own key interest is on the pricing of goods and services by the relative equalisation of bargaining positions (it should cost a fair bit to have a toilet cleaned, not much to go to a music concert).

      As to the cost, many people and groups have done costings, including the savings achieved by folding in many disparate extant programs. I’ll leave it to you to look into those if you want to explore it. But in fact there’s an apples/oranges problem here: an economy with a UBI is a different one to a “regular” capitalist economy. Some things will rise in price, some will fall, some will be deemed not worth doing at all, some will be deemed worth doing after all, some will be automated quickly (whereas at the moment cheap labour is cheaper than innovation). It will take courage for a country to try it – it certainly wont be trialed in countries with low civic sentiment and high resentment. But then, democracy was a big unknown too in the 1780s and one country gave that a shot… Uncertainty is no argument against it. The idea is being talked about a fair bit in northern Europe, and at least one party in the UK (the Green party) has it on their manifesto.

      But your example betrays a little bit of “architecture of resentment” – thanks for demonstrating my point 😉 You focus on those who “wont work” or, more tellingly “wont want to work” – classic “architecture” behaviour. Some points are worth mentioning. One is that the US pays a helluva lot more out than $3 trillion on its biggest welfare class – those in the top percentiles who are paid simply for owning and who, conversely, own because they are paid so much. This is a massive “dependency drain”, to reclaim the language for its proper use, and the core threat to liberty and democracy. Since 1980 just about the entirety of economic growth in the US has gone to those few – think about that for a moment about what that means. These are the same people who are funding your beloved Heritage foundation, the Mont Pelerin group, and all of those other purveyors of resentment. Work is simply not rewarded – ownership is. And that is not an economic structure that is compatible with motivation nor with real liberty. Secondly, the US needs to consume a lot less than it does if the world is gonna keep spinning. To do that it needs to -work a lot less-. That isn’t going to happen in an “architecture of resentment” culture where people hoard work out of fear (because, having worked hard, they wont pass the means testing!) and out of status anxiety. People need to talk seriously about what work needs doing, and how to share the burdens of that work. This is something that a UBI will certainly facilitate but that wont even get a fair hearing under a libertarian (actually “proprietarian” – libertarian is a gross misnomer) arrangement.

  3. Doug Hazelrigg
    March 7, 2013 at 3:56 am

    Apparently I don’t recall my html superscript correctly

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