A revenger's tragedy

The intelligence services and religious extremists were behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto,

Pakistan has a new political leader barely out of nappies. Bila wal Bhutto, 19, has become the new chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), after the assassination of his mother, Benazir Bhutto. The teenager, who has hardly spent any time in Pakistan and speaks virtually no Urdu, will share the responsibility of leading the most powerful political party in Pakistan with his widower father, Asif Ali Zardari, who has become co-chair of the PPP. This is what Benazir has bequeathed to the party and the nation.

Despite all the rhetoric about democracy, the PPP did not even consider holding an election to find a new leader. There are devoted PPP politicians who could have assumed the mantle of leadership - from Makhdoom Amin Fahim, who managed the party during Ms Bhutto's exile, to Aitzaz Ahsan, the brilliant lawyer who led the agitation against President Pervez Musharraf yet was marginalised by her because of his immense popularity. But quite simply, at no time during its existence has the PPP actually practised democracy.

Though she was seen as liberal and west-leaning, Bhutto based her political power on the feudal tenants of her ancestral lands in Sindh. For all that she proclaimed the need for democracy, the PPP, of which Bhutto appointed herself "chairperson for life", is another autocratic fiefdom. It is a family, dynastic business; a Bhutto can only be succeeded by another Bhutto - even if he has to return to Oxford to finish his studies. Ms Bhutto was fully aware of her husband's reputation for authoritarianism and corruption. During her two terms as prime minister, he was known as "Mr Ten Per Cent". Still she appointed him as successor in her will.

"Democracy is the best revenge," Bilawal quoted his mother as saying at his first press conference. In Pakistan, however, this mantra is not as positive as it appears. Politics has become a revenger's tragedy in its regular oscillation between civilian and military rule. Each painful transition creates an agenda of animosity and scores to be settled. When politics begins with the unfinished business of old wrongs, genuine development takes a back seat. The groundwork for another round is evident in the bizarre argument about how Bhutto actually met her death. Did she die from an assassin's bullet, as the Bhutto camp claims? Or from a skull fracture after hitting her head on the lever of her car's sunroof, as the government suggests? Then comes the question of who instigated the murder.

The government claims Baitullah Mehsud, a leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was behind the assassination. It produced in evidence a telephone transcript in which Mehsud, speaking in Pashto, congratulates a lieutenant on the operation. Yet Mehsud has denied any involvement. "It is against tribal tradition and custom to attack a woman," his spokesman declared. "This is a conspiracy of the government, army and intelligence agencies." The Bhutto camp endorses this view.

Bhutto herself pointed the finger at Musharraf. "I have been made to feel insecure by his minions," she wrote in an email to her friend and confidant in Washington Mark Siegel. "There is no way what is happening in terms of stopping me from taking private cars or using tinted windows or giving jammers or four police mobiles to cover all sides could happen without him." People's Party stalwarts also believe that "remnants" from the period of President Zia ul-Haq, who executed Benazir's father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, intended to kill her. She talked of a state within a state, of around 400 people attached to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) who saw her as a threat and would stop at nothing to remove her.

Quite what motivation Musharraf's government would have for assassinating Bhutto, it is hard to discern. He expected her to provide legitimacy for his presidency. Indeed, the very fact that she was eager to participate in the elections put a democratic sheen on his clinging to power. Her death not only weakens Musharraf's position further, but may actually write the final chapter of his rule.

Security experts in Pakistan have little doubt who is behind the assassination. "I am convinced that the intelligence services were involved," says Ayesha Siddiqa, author of the highly acclaimed book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy. Only through the collusion of the security services could both a gunman and a suicide bomber have got so close to Bhutto, she says. Other analysts agree. There seems to be a general consensus that renegade current and former members of the ISI are working with religious extremists to spread a reign of terror.

Benazir Bhutto is the highest-value victim so far, but it is not just the PPP that is being targeted. Almost all Pakistani politicians are under threat. Hours before Bhutto's assassination, an election rally organised by the Muslim League, the party of the other former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was attacked by unknown gunmen. Four party workers were killed. The Muslim League blames a pro-Musharraf party, the PML(Q), for the incident. But Musharraf allies are themselves under attack.

On 21 December, the day of the festival of Eid ul-Adha, a suicide bomber attacked a mosque in Charsadda District, near Pesha war, during Friday prayers. The intended victim, the former interior minister Aftab Sherpao, escaped unhurt but the blast killed more than 50 people. Even religious politicians, such as Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Islamic Party of Religious Leaders), who has close ties with the Taliban, have received death threats. "The truth is that anyone can be bumped off in Pakistan," says Imran Khan, the former cricketer and leader of the Movement for Justice Party, and it can simply be "blamed on al-Qaeda".

The real function of these threats, attacks and assassinations is to strengthen the hand of the religious extremists and undermine all vestiges of the political process in Pakistan. The intelligence services want to ensure that power remains not just with the military, but with its hardcore religious faction. "Anyone or any institution that can possibly undermine this goal is seen by them as a threat," says Siddiqa. Bhutto was targeted because she was capable of uniting the country against the military as well as the religious extremists. Indeed, most of her criticisms during the campaign were directed towards the extremists and the security services.

Paradoxically, it was Bhutto herself who unleashed these forces. It was under her second administration that the Taliban came into existence with the aid and comfort of the ISI. While she was the first woman to lead a Muslim nation and was seen as secular, moderate and imbued with the liberalism and western approach of her Harvard and Oxford education, Bhutto fostered the politics of elective feudalism in Pakistan.

Under her leadership, the PPP became a vehicle for righting the wrongs of the past - specifically the overthrow and execution of Benazir's beloved father - rather than an institution generating policy and debate about the changing needs of Pakistani society and maturing a new generation of political leaders. Her brother Murtaza Bhutto was killed when he challenged her leadership of the party. His whole family, including Benazir's mother, believes she was behind the murder. Her terms in office were characterised not just by corruption and nepotism, but also by revenge and human rights abuses. She had the largest cabinet in the history of Pakistan; she even made her unelected husband minister for investment, which was generally seen as an open invitation to corruption. A common joke during her second term was that the infant Bilawal had been awarded the portfolio of minister for children.

Musharraf in the balance

These democratic deficits stop the PPP from becoming anything other than a dynastic, feudal institution. Yet such deficits are common throughout the political scene. Most politicians in the country, including the spotless Imran Khan, are feudal landowners. Increasingly, Pakistani politics has become sectional, sectarian and regional, tending to spin the country apart rather than offer a vision of a united and hopeful future. Politicians appeal to tribal, regional loyalties and to their feudal "vote banks". Few, if any, escape being tarnished in the eyes of much of the population.

As a consequence, Pakistani politics and governance have totally failed to resolve the basic dilemmas the country has faced since its creation: what is Pakistan as a nation, as an idea? In Pakistan religion has always been a factor. But is that all there is to Pakistan? How should religion find expression in the life of the nation? There must be more to Pakistanis and their deep attachment to Islam than being swept along on the tide of jihadi ideology and the violence and terrorism it breeds. But how can Pakistan develop an alternative vision of itself as a viable state? When can such a vision become the bedrock of public life? These questions cannot be asked, let alone explored, in the current political climate.

The assassination also leaves the future of President Musharraf in the balance. The former general must be seen as a figure of declining utility to western interests. The armed forces, now one of the most hated institutions in Pakistan, are no longer a monolith. They display the same fissiparous tendencies as Pakistani society as a whole. Pro-Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathies have taken root within the army, the only agency Musharraf supposedly controlled and could use to combat terrorism. His room for manoeuvre was always limited. After Benazir Bhutto's murder, his chances of delivering on any of the hoped-for initiatives in the "war on terror" have evaporated. The last vestiges of US strategy have been destroyed by the gunman and the suicide bomber.

As long as Musharraf remains in power, Pakistan will be unstable, continually teetering on the edge of chaos. Further US or British manipulation of the country's politics will only make matters worse. Even those who would never support religious extremism and are determined to oppose the growth of terrorist sympathies have an intense dislike for US involvement in Pakistani politics. Opposition to the course of US foreign policy since the 11 September 2001 attacks has hardened antipathy and made countering the rise of religious extremism ever more difficult.

Civil society

A great deal of hope is being pinned on the coming elections. Bhutto's death has brought the opposition parties together. All political parties will now participate in the elections, including the Muslim League, the second major party, which had decided to boycott them after the assassination. However, it would be wrong to assume that a PPP victory, based on a sympathy vote, would greatly reduce the underlying, simmering tensions. The extremists and their supporters in the ISI are not through with Pakistan quite yet. The polls will undoubtedly be rigged in favour of Musharraf's party. If his supporters lose power, the scene would be set for further, and open, confrontation between the president and the newly elected government. Far from resolving anything, the elections, which were expected to be delayed until next month, may actually perpetuate the crisis.

The only sign of hope lies in the diverse character of Pakistani society, in which comment, opinion, ideas and debate are vibrant and thriving, powered not least by the emergence of satellite and cable television stations. A civil society exists, which stands apart from politics and the military. Neglected, yet robust, that civil society is the unexplored pole of all the sectional interests in Pakistan. It was elements from this sector - the judiciary, lawyers, human rights groups, news media, non-governmental organisations, students and minor parties - whom Musharraf had to restrict and destabilise to ensure his survival. They offer the prospect of a fresh departure from which a healthier, more sustainable and enduring politics might emerge.

Although the agencies of civil society are themselves still in disarray, they may yet rescue Pakistan from the motley crew of Musharraf, the military, feudal politicians and religious fanatics. Bringing a country where the political process becomes ever more discredited and hostage to violence back to sanity will not be easy, painless or swift: Pakistan is poised to endure a great deal of pain and suffering for the foreseeable future.

the Bhuttos by numbers

4 suffered unnatural deaths (Zulfikar, Shahnawaz, Murtaza, Benazir)

5 studied at Oxford (Zulfikar, Benazir, Murtaza, Shahnawaz and now Bilawal)

$8.6m fine imposed in 1999 on Benazir and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, over corruption charges (later overturned)

$1.5bn estimated profits from kickbacks made by Bhutto family and associates, according to 1996 investigation

0 pieces of major legislation passed by Benazir in first term as prime minister

10 per cent Zardari's nickname, on account of dubious business dealings

Research by Alyssa McDonald

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan plot

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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.

***

 

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