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It has been an interesting period watching the various ruses that conservatives are bringing to bear to attack Jeremy Corbyn and, somewhat unrelated, try to justify why the US Federal Reserve Bank should be raising interest rates. I will deal with the latter issue another day. Apparently, the grass roots rise of Jeremy Corbyn to leadership of the British Labour Party is actually a demonstration of the “rise of groupthink” in British politics and “threatens Britain’s membership of the EU – and the United Kingdom itself”. Indeed, more Corbynsteria as the terminology goes. This quietly-spoken British man seems to have a lot to answer for after having the audacity to intervene in the cosy little neo-liberal world of British party politics (Tory and New Labour). But the part that interested me was that the author – who is employed by the lofty sounding but usually disappointing, British-based Centre for European Reform (which gets funding because it is a mouthpiece for pro-European integration) – considers Corbyn has been the beneficiary of a new found groupthink. It beggars belief really.
Regular readers will know that my current book is entitled – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale.
The title was not accidental. I spent a lot of time studying the social psychology literature about group dynamics and patterned behaviour as well as learning about the use of language and framing from the cognitive linguistics literature.
The two strands of study led me to cast the Eurozone elites as exemplifying the behaviour that American social psychologist Irving Janis had referred to as ‘groupthink’ in his 1972 study Victims of Groupthink.
That book was revised and published as a second edition in 1982.
He did not invent the term though.
The first reference to the term was in the Fortune Magazine article (March 1952) – Groupthink – by William H. Whyte Jr., which was reprinted in the July 22, 2012 edition.
In the Fortune article, Whyte’s was on the increased emphasis of “social engineering” which he said was the “planned manipulation of the individual into the group role”. He defined Groupthink as;
We are not talking about mere instinctive conformity – it is, after all, a perennial failing of mankind. What we are talking about is a rationalized conformity- an open, articulate philosophy which holds that group values are not only expedient but right and good as well. Three mutually supporting ideas form the underpinning: (1) that moral values and ethics are relative; (2) that what is important is the kind of behavior and attitudes that makes for the harmonious functioning of the group; (3) that the best way to achieve this is through the application of “scientific” techniques.
The result is that “man” has become a “dismal fellow” because “Social Man” becomes “completely a creature of his environment, guided almost totally by the whims and prejudices of the group, and incapable of any real self-determination of his destiny”.
His essay was a long account of changes in American society that he considered amounted to the “smothering of the individual” and he argued that “Lest man become an ethical eunuch, his autonomy sacrificed for the harmony of the group, a new respect for the individual must be kindled”.
His solution was to foster study in the critical areas of literature – the humanities. He also encouraged the corporate sector to adopt “a conscious, deliberate effort … not only to accommodate dissent but to encourage it”.
But it was Irving Janis who led the research into the theory of groupthink some 20 years later. His case study was the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Vietnam War.
The two major references for Irving Janis are:
Janis, I.L. (1972) Victims of groupthink: a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes, Boston, Houghton Mifflin.
Janis, I.L. (1982)Groupthink: psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascoes, Second Edition, New York, Houghton Mifflin.
In 1972, social psychologist Irving Janis identified group behaviour he termed ‘Groupthink’, which is a:
… mode of thinking people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in group, when the members striving for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action’ (Janis, 1982: 9).
Groupthink “requires each member to avoid raising controversial issues” (Janis, 1982: 12).
Groupthink drives a sort of ‘mob rule’ that maintains discipline within the group or community of decision makers. These communities develop a dominant culture, which provides its members with a sense of belonging and joint purpose but also renders them oblivious and hostile to new and superior ways of thinking.
Groupthink becomes apparent to the outside world when there is a crisis, or in Janis’s words a ‘fiasco’, such as the Global Financial Crisis.
Janis wrote that “one of the key characteristics of groupthink” is:
… that of remaining loyal to the group by sticking with the policies to which the group has already itself, even when those policies are obviously working out badly and have unintended consequences which disturb the conscience of each member. This is one of the key characteristics of groupthink.
So I considered the obsession with austerity even in the face of mounting disasters across Europe to be an example of this stubborness to abandon failed courses of action.
Broadening the application, the GFC was a powerful demonstration of the failure of the neo-liberal belief that self-regulating markets would deliver economic stability and maximise wealth for all.
The response by governments – fiscal stimulus packages – also proved beyond doubt that the mainstream economics paradigm that had convinced itself and others that fiscal policy was ineffective in dealing with fluctuations in economic activity and that fiscal deficits would only drive inflation and interest rates up was patently false.
Yet, these interlinked myths form the basis of the dominant policy paradigm in economics.
In Britain, New Labour exemplified this adherence to neo-liberal Groupthink.
Groupthink emerges when group members become “soft headed” – there is a “deterioration in mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgments as a result of group pressures” but “hard hearted when it comes to dealing with out- group or enemies”.
His examples were military (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam etc). More recently, the neo-liberal groupthink embraced a new martial stance among the advanced nations that saw political leaders such as Bush and Blair justify the wholesale slaughter of citizens in Iraq “in the name of the noble cause of persuading an unfriendly government to negotiate at the peace table”.
The ethical dilemmas were put to one side because the Group was engaged in what they claimed was the defence of freedom – the highest morality a state could engage in.
As we have seen, the aftermath of that disaster has reduced the freedom of every individual in the world and expanded the threat to our safety.
Irving Janis developed an 8-point (symptoms) checklist that allows us to detect the existence of groupthink.
1. Invulnerability – leads group members to be “over-optimistic and willing to take extraordinary risks … [and] … fail to response to clear warnings of danger”.
2. Rationale – “victims of groupthink ignore warnings” and “collectively construct rationalizations in order to discount warnings”.
Of course, there are warnings and warnings. The hysterical response by the Blairites in the lead up to the leadership ballot led by none other than Blair himself was a ‘warning’ but hardly credible given its obvious self interest and denial of reality.
3. Morality – “Victims of groupthink believe unquestionably in the inherent morality of their in-group. This belief inclines the members to ignore the ethical and moral consequences of their decisions”.
The invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq … the focus on the technical side of the invasion (we all learned about different types of bombs and missiles and ammunition).
Irving Janis talks about the US military’s “ritualistic adherence to a standardized procedure induced members to feel morally justified in their destructive way of dealing with the Vietnamese people” and the “heavy civilian casualties” that followed.
4. Stereotypes – “Victims of groupthink hold stereotypes views of the leaders of enemy groups: they are so evil that genuine attempts at negotiating differences with them are unwarranted, or they are too stupid or too weak to deal effectively with whatever attempts the in-group makes to defeat their purposes, no matter how risky the attempts are.”
Irving Janis noted that the US military thought Fidel Castro was too stupid to deal with the “possible internal uprisings in support of the exiles”.
Slogans are used to reduce the opposition’s importance.
5. Pressure – This is the mob rule idea that “direct pressure” is placed on “any individual who momentarily expresses doubt about any of the group’s shared illusions or who questions the validity of the arguments supporting a policy alternative favored by the majority.”
Loyalty is paramount.
6. Self-censorship – “Victims of groupthink avoid deviating from what appears to be group consensus; they keep silent about their misgivings and even minimize the importance of their doubts.”
After all, being a member of the group is the goal and minor individual complaints are subjugated to retaining the favour of the group.
7. Unanimity – this follows from self-censorship – there is an “illusion of of unanimity within the group concerning almost all judgments expressed by members who speak in favor of the majority view” – tacit consent is often the way an individual who is uncomfortable can stay in the group and enjoy its benefits.
Unanimity is also interpreted as finding the “truth”. If all economists except that mad MMT lot believe that deficits have to be, at least, balanced over the economic cycle, then that must be true.
If all economists except that mad MMT lot believe that deficits will lead to inflation then that must be true.
And so on.
8. Mindguards – “Victims of groupthink sometimes appoint themselves as mindguards to protect the leader and fellow member from adverse information that might break the complacency they shared about the effectiveness and morality of past decisions.”
Advisors filter information that the group’s leadership receives. They arrange meetings with those who will reinforce the status quo and will defray any dissident viewpoints.
If you reflect on those characteristics it is a fairly safe bet that the Eurozone mess is a result of neo-liberal Groupthink among the European political elites who have appeared to have been in denial as to the crazy system they have created and then pushed to its logical extremes – which has resulted in millions of people losing their jobs, poverty rates rising, suicide rates rising, a significant proportion of youth disenfranchised from any chance of prosperity, cities and regions being hollowed out, and more.
When the Maastricht process was being debated, the major critics were from outside Europe which engendered a sort of xenophobic response. It was as if you had to be European and living in the cocooned world of the Brussels bureaucracy for you to understand the European Project.
So while the critics saw a system being designed that would fail at its first major test, the European policy makers, in total denial, preached subsidiarity and all the rest of the buzz words and concepts that accompanied their mad plan.
It was, and is, Groupthink exemplified.
Groupthink is usually associated with policy failure that is then denied. The evidence that points to this failure is ignored and new ‘facts’ are proffered to revise reality and make it appear that the policy structures are working.
Now think a little about what has just gone down in the British Labour leadership contest in relation to these checklist symptoms.
The writer from the British-based Centre for European Reform (noted in the introduction) has done just that, it appears, and thinks he has detected the “rise of groupthink” in British politics in the guise of Jeremy Corbyn and his groupthink besotted supporters.
In the article (September 18, 2015) – Jeremy Corbyn and the rise of groupthink – one John Springford writes that:
Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership heralds an era of ideological contest that threatens Britain’s membership of the EU – and the United Kingdom itself.
Which implies, of course, that British Labour under the Blairites were in the same ideological camp as the Tories – a proposition I would have to agree with.
The doom predictions are another matter.
The author asks:
When does cosy consensus become groupthink? According to the social psychologist, Irving Janis, it is when the desire for conformity becomes so strong that alternative courses of action are not even considered, let alone taken.
Yes, Irving Janis did observe that when groups adopt an over-the-top type of “concurrence-seeking” among group members. The excess is judged by the group members valuing the group and their place in the group above other competing and importance considerations.
As Paul ‘t Hart wrote in the journal article – Irving L. Janis’ Victims of Groupthink – published in Political Psychology (Vol 12, No2, 1991):
This causes them to strive for a quick and painless unanimity on the issues that the group has to confront. To preserve the clubby atmosphere, group members suppress personal doubts, silence dissenters, and follow the group leader’s suggestions. They have a strong belief in the inherent morality of the group, combined with a decidedly evil picture of the group’s opponents. The results are devastating: a distorted view of reality, excessive optimism producing hasty and reckless policies, and a neglect of ethical issues. The combination of these deficiencies makes these groups particularly vulnerable to initiate or sustain projects that turn out to be policy fiascoes.
For the Centre for European Reform Author, Jeremy Corbyn has become a surfer who has come from Labour Party obscurity to the top job “on a wave of groupthink”.
How does his argument stack up against the 8 characteristics noted above that Irving Janis considered were indicators of Groupthink?
First, the author says that “The British left never fully accepted Blair’s Third Way – and his greatest mistake, the Iraq war, provided the pretext for their demonisation of him. Corbynistas disparage the party’s centrists as “red Tories” – a process Janis defined as “stereotyping” opponents as spiteful and biased.
My understanding of the rising of Jeremy Corbyn is that he has not just relied on the “British left”, by which we must take to mean the old industrial union guard, who clearly despised the spivs who pushed the New Labour agenda.
He seems to have invigorated a new generation of political activism, particularly among the young, who have become ‘political’ in the more formal sense.
They are rejecting the claims that the neo-liberal era has been successful. They see the evidence in the unemployment queues and the food poverty. Corbyn’s popularity is on the back of the clear failure of the existing consensus that the Tories and New Labour formed.
It also seems that in a political environment, which is adversarial by definition, there will always be conflictual attitudes displayed towards one’s political opponents. If disparaging the New Labourites is the only thing that Corbyn’s supporters have done, then it stretches the meaning of Groupthink – makes it a rather lame concept devoid of any real distinction.
Progressive people have been let down by the New Labour policies which did buy into the neo-liberal consensus (that is, Groupthink) that the Tories would claim is their natural ideological terrain.
The CER author recognises that once again their is an ideological struggle going on whereas under New Labour, the differentiating characteristics of the two major parties were minimised and Labour became Tory-lite. Why vote for the imitation when you can have the real thing.
Second, the CER author claims that the “British left has always seen itself as the guardian of political morality, leading to a state of total certainty in which the risks of the group’s decisions – withdrawal from Nato might endanger the country’s security, for example – are reflexively dismissed.”
That appears to be an assertion rather than an evidence-based assessment. One could easily claim that the Tories cast themselves as the defenders of freedom and that this was a moral stance.
Remember John Major’s – Back to Basics speech – at the Blackpool Conservative Party Conference on October 8, 1993 where he claimed that:
The old values – neighbourliness, decency, courtesy – they’re still alive, they’re still the best of Britain. They haven’t changed, and yet somehow people feel embarrassed by them. Madam President, we shouldn’t be. It is time to return to those old core values, time to get back to basics, to self-discipline and respect for the law, to consideration for others, to accepting a responsibility for yourself and your family and not shuffling off on other people and the state
Any number of references to the Tory claim to moral superiority can be found.
The point the CER author wants to make is really about his own belief that membership of NATO is essential for British security, which any reasonable person would consider to be a contestable hypothesis.
Opposing it does not constitute an expression of blind morality.
Further, as far as I understand, Jeremy Corbyn has agreed that there is no public support from withdrawing from NATO, so where is the “threat”?
Third, the CER author claims that “excessive optimism” characterises the Corbyn camp and “the British left imagines that the surge of Corbyn backers signing up to vote will be replicated in the broader electorate, despite the fact that no leader from Labour’s left has ever won a general election”.
As a matter of history, Clement Atlee’s political positions were what we call ‘left-wing’ by any stretch. He was a socialist who oversaw the introduction of the full employment era for Britain in the immediate Post World War 2 period.
He believed in public ownership and redistribution of income to improve the lot of the working class. He created the NHS in 1948.
He was committed to the nationalisation of basic industries and public utilities. He nationalised the Bank of England.
He introduced the Welfare State in 1946 and provided subsidised public housing to low income workers. Many improvements to working conditions occurred under his stewardship.
So Mr Springford might check his understanding of British history a bit.
But more importantly where is the evidence that the “Corbyn camp” thinks it is now a shoe-in at the next election and that the votes he gleaned in the leadership contest are reflective of the British electorate generally?
My reading of the situation is that the Corbyn Camp now realises it has five years to take this ‘New politics’ – the grass roots uprising against the smug neo-liberal consensus that the New Labour formed with the Tories – to the people and to use the construal capacities of human cognition to alter the way people think about politics and economics and everything else.
It is clearly the nature of politics to be optimistic – why would a player be otherwise? But that hardly constitutes the sort of Groupthink dynamic that Irving Janis identified.
Fourth, the CER author then seems to get lost in making his case that Corbyn’s rise to British Labour leadership is a demonstration of Groupthink rising to subvert the “stable liberalism of the pre-2008 period”.
He says that:
Between 1992 and 2008 there was consensus over the big policy questions of the age: that the state should reflect and nurture the country’s social liberalism, and provide more rights and opportunities for minorities and women; that it should intervene in markets only to correct obvious failures; that pro-work redistribution through tax credits and a minimum wage should counter poverty and inequality; and that more should be spent on improving public services. Now, Britain’s parties are retreating into ideological comfort zones, ignoring or attacking evidence that contradicts their prior beliefs, and choosing policies less on a careful analysis of outcomes than on tribal orthodoxies.
Yes that is true. But the “consensus” as he calls it had more Groupthink characteristics than the grass roots support from Jeremy Corbyn.
The fact is that this “stable liberalism” created the conditions that led to the GFC. It looked good for a while as the financial engineers ran amok under the ‘light regulation’ of New Labour. The boasting and denial reached fever pitch around 2006.
We heard about the ‘Great Moderation’ and leading mainstream economists declared the ‘business cycle to be dead’.
Please read my blog – The Great Moderation myth – for more discussion on this point.
But the storm was building and when it broke the gains of the ‘market friendly’ policies were quickly diminished and the global economy is now stuck in a stagnant malaise with millions unemployed.
The neo-liberal Groupthinkers in the Tory Party and the New Labourites want to inflict more of the policies that created the mess in the first place.
Finally, the masses are responding to their exclusion from the political process by the elites. They are sick of being told that pro-business, pro-market policies which undermine working conditions and prosperity are the only way. They are rejecting the TINA mantra.
Jeremy Corbyn is a reflection of that grass roots uprising which has stunned the entrenched political elites. Rather than the Corbyn rise being a rise of Groupthink, I would cast it as being a movement that is demonstrating the fiascos of the neo-liberal Groupthink – the Tories and New Labour – it is tearing that denial group of elites apart.
We normally consider groups that succumb to Groupthink to be elites, with status and power to protect.
I don’t see the support base of Jeremy Corbyn to be of that ilk. He is giving voice to the dispossessed who know the neo-liberal approach has failed and is hurting them.
The CER author claims that:
Corbyn’s policies engage in a debate with a spectral Margaret Thatcher: re-open the coal mines that she closed; subordinate monetary to fiscal policy; unpick the privatisation programme that she started. He has no programme of progressive structural reforms – to property, land and retail finance markets, or to the tax system – which would be efficient ways to reduce Britain’s troublingly high level of inequality and raise its weak level of productivity. Confronting past enemies, the left does not notice the alternative roads it might travel.
Which is a selective interpretation of what the policy platform will emerge as under the new leader.
First, empowering fiscal policy and downgrading the importance of monetary policy is not a throwback to a failed past. Rather it is sound economics.
The nations that deployed the largest fiscal stimulus packages around 2008-09 are now growing faster than those that embraced austerity. Even the Tories under Cameron abandoned their ideological obsession with austerity in 2012 when it was clear the British economy would triple-dip back into recession.
Privatisation has also failed to deliver on the promises that were made by the conservatives. It makes sense to reverse the worst of these acts of vandalism.
But beyond that I understand Jeremy Corbyn to be advocating a range of progressive paths in education, housing, health etc that are clearly “alternative roads” to the current policy consensus.
Corbyn wants to break with the austerity and austerity-lite that are the only choices the British people have had in the recent period.
The CER author fails to establish that Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the top of the Labour Party is all down to Groupthink. I consider the grass roots movement that extends well beyond what we would call the traditional British left is, in fact, a challenge to the existing neo-liberal Groupthink.
This challenge has endless possibilities to break out of the narrow confines that British politics has been stuck in since the late 1970s.
It has the capacity to challenge many of the policy positions that demonstrably favour the high income and wealthy groups in Britain.
It is up to the skill of Jeremy Corbyn now to harness his popularity into an outward-looking grass roots movement that provides inclusive policies to benefit the vast majority of British citizens and breaks the hegemony of the existing Groupthink.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2015 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.