10,000 memories in Nelson, Lancashire

Here, the old cotton mill workers recall noise, bullying and hunger. Now, in Asia, a new generation

The streets of the Lancashire mill-towns are full of old people now. If there is a certain melancholy as they look out on to the car parks and rectangles of rubble where weaving sheds and houses stood, this is perhaps because their whole working life was spent in a declining industry.

The house where Ethel and Alan Timberlake live is in the shadow of one of the last mills in Nelson. It closed 18 months ago, and is now being demolished; sunlight comes into the front room for the first time, through the roofless building and its broken windows. "The house used to shake with the vibration from the looms," says Ethel. "It was not very pleasant, but the silence is worse." The mill had the most modern Swiss looms, making industrial uniforms for several airlines and Marks and Spencer. It was taken over by Carrington Viyella, who get the work done more cheaply abroad. The looms went to India.

"We used to make sarees for export to India," recalls Dick Howarth, now in his mid-eighties. "Then, when there were labour shortages, they fetched workers from India and Pakistan. They worked the night-shifts, sleeping in beds turn and turn about, just as the Irish did 100 years ago. Now they are bringing in the material from India and Pakistan. It's hard to make sense of it."

"It's a different world," say the old spinners of Bolton and Oldham, the weavers of Blackburn and Burnley. And for them it is; even though that same world still exists, on the other side, the dark side, of the earth, in the slums of Dhaka and Jakarta. To the former workers of Lancashire it is distant memory now, long confided to oral historians and enclosed in industrial museums. In any case, the pain of loss has been decertified by political gibberish about progress and modernisation. They sit in their front rooms, with tea and home-made victoria sponge and the hiss of the gas fire, surrounded by pictures of grandchildren against a sky-blue background, the bird twittering in its cage, the poinsettia (also from Asia) wilting in the heat. A different world indeed.

Yet the abuses of poverty and overwork linger tenaciously in the minds of the very old; stories that correspond with an aching exactness to the testimony of the young women workers in Dhaka, Jakarta, Mumbai. Their recollections of hunger, cruel overseers, physical chastisement, ruined health and industrial hazards are still commonplace in the industrial suburbs of Asia. The cobbler who gave his children leather to chew in order to appease their hunger would have recognised the plight of the mother in Dhaka, giving her children rags for the same purpose. The women who searched the market stalls on Saturday night, picking up specked oranges and mouldy bananas, might be speaking for the women of Jakarta, scavenging scraps from the trash outside the city's restaurants.

When they tell of foremen who hit the women, made them stand for an hour in the freezing mill-yard if they were late for work, their echoes prefigure the woman in the Dhaka factory, beaten with a chair leg for tangling her threads, the woman dismissed from her job for abandoning her machine when she learnt that her son had been killed. When they speak of the ebb and flow of trade, the long periods on the dole, they anticipate in memory the thousands being laid off each day in the Jakarta of 1998. Olive Sharples, Weavers' Union organiser for 44 years, remembers visiting the sick, many of whom were dying of byssinosis, a then unrecognised respiratory disease that came from long exposure to cotton dust. Now, the workers of Dhaka waste away with TB.

Ethel Timberlake remembers her mother sucking the ends of the cotton through the shuttle - "kissing the shuttle" they called it - the kiss of death, for she died of emphysema at 50. Others tell tales of people who were caught by their hair or a limb in the straps that drove the looms, and were dashed against the ceiling of the shed. The same industrial accidents are reported today, which is scarcely surprising, since some of the same archaic machinery is still in use in the decaying mills of Mumbai, the names Northrop of Blackburn or Platt Brothers of Oldham still embossed in the ancient metal.

The old bring to life not only their own testimony of work, want and struggle, but equally, the experience of people separated from them only by time, different skies, another colour or religion. If it is hard for them to perceive a common destiny, perhaps this is because they are constantly being urged on to a future of undreamed-of technological marvels, to a frantic keeping up with the times - times that demand the same tribute of flesh and blood all over the world, and which the workers of Lancashire paid so recently.

It isn't only the working conditions that join our past with their present. The mill-workers tell how the big stores - Woolworth's, Marks and Spencer - would place an order for fancy handkerchiefs, say. "A small order at first. Then a bigger one. Finally, the whole factory would be given over to the production of one item. Then, when the company was dependent on these orders, the stores would offer less money. The wages of the workers went down, profits dwindled, and in the end, the company closed down."

The beneficiaries of the shift to Asia are deterred from organising by the vast pool of workless, or by the presence of the military, spies and informers, in the factories. Nuri was dismissed in June 1998 for trying to form a union in a sub-contractor to Marks and Spencer in Jakarta. In Dhaka, Rehna Begum was imprisoned with 21 other trade unionists for stealing from the factory; after two years in jail, it was "discovered" that the production manager had stolen the goods. No compensation.

In the industrial zones of Tangerang, Bekasi, Mirpur, Dharavi, you will find all the big names - Walmart, C&A, Levi-Strauss, Great Reaper, Nike. The complaints of the workers might have been compiled in Lancashire: bad ventilation, no work security, compulsory overtime, no health insurance, insufficient rest, being timed going to the lavatory, fines for the smallest mistake, bullying, harassment, being forbidden to sing, talk or laugh.

Dick Howarth and his wife look out into the street; children sit on the wall of a derelict house, the inheritors of the lost function of the mill-town of Padiham, where mills employed the vast majority of its 13,000 people. "Drugs, no secure work, is that better than what we knew?" they ask. Ethel Timberlake tells how a friend, a woman of 54, was raped by a 15-year-old boy. "What have we done to our children? What have we left for the next generation?"

The questions scarcely require answers. How can it not be better than the thousand looms that clattered through the day, leaving a whole generation to lip-read? Better than the smoke from the chimneys of Nelson, "which made it impossible for Hitler to bomb us, because he couldn't see us through the smoke". Better than children crawling under looms to clean them, starting work at age 12, as they do now in South Asia. Better than the room-and-power mills, rented by manufacturers so that they could dismiss all the operatives as soon as trade slackened; just as the management in Dhaka boast that, if workers try to organise, they can sack the whole workforce and recruit a new one within 48 hours.

The old look back with a curious estrangement from their earlier selves - as though they had died and been reincarnated. "We went on holiday to Blackpool. My grandmother filled a tin trunk with cakes and bread she'd baked. Then she came all the way back on Wednesday and filled it up again."

"They used to take all their belongings on holiday. This woman, big fat woman, carrying her canary in a cage, little husband with two huge suitcases. She says to him, 'be careful, we don't want that rupture coming down at Morecambe'."

"We had to call the boss 'Master'. He'd stand at the entrance, push back his billy-cock, and walk through. If he was wearing his blue suit, you knew things were rough, there'd be trouble."

"When they brought in the Clean Air Act, the sheep and sparrows of Nelson all changed colour."

They were part of a great division of labour, in which the work of thousands of hands was co-ordinated into a single industrial machine. Even the words that placed them in the structure are a dead language now - who knows now what a cake-winder was, a deviller, a tackler? "I used to look in the shop windows and see the stuff we'd made. We were pleased. The cotton they sell now, we wouldn't have it as floor-cloths." The last mill in Blackburn that still used the old Lancashire looms made non-washable fabric; material, fittingly, for shrouds.

Sometimes the Lancashire people talk of the people of Asia "stealing our jobs" as though labour had crossed the world like a thief in the night to take away their function as they slept the sleep of exhaustion; as though capital had no role in it; as though desperate migrants to Dhaka or Jakarta, in their shared slum rooms, three metres by three, were the enemies, and not the kin, of the ghosts of country people once driven from impoverished villages into the squalid towns of Lancashire.

"We tried everything to keep the mills open," recalls Olive Sharples. "We organised the Buy British campaign in the sixties. Some companies imported cloth and stamped Made in Accrington on it, but it didn't save them. People feel bitter, they still do. It wasn't till 1980 that we could see it was all finished. We thought if they modernised, at least there'd be some jobs."

The workers of Asia and of Lancashire have one other thing in common; they were never consulted about the setting up of the industry, any more than they were about its closure, but were sucked into it beyond their will, beyond their control. They used to say "I'm not going to let any child of mine go into the mill", but into the mill they went. Then, when there were no mills left, they find themselves asking "Where are the jobs for the next generation coming from?"

There is no answer. The jobs have gone to use up the youth and energies of young people in Asia, just as they laid waste those of generations in Lancashire.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge