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Red Reads: 1-10

50 books that will change your life with recommendations from Tony Benn, Susie Orbach, Christopher H

1. The Black Jacobins
C L R James (1938)

The Caribbean working classes were on the move throughout the 1930s. Agitators invoked anti-colonial sentiment, which spread throughout these tiny islands. Amid this turmoil, in 1932, C L R James left Trinidad with a manuscript, The Case for West Indian Self-Government, in his suitcase. Published as a pamphlet in 1933, this challenged the colonial dictum that the Caribbean peoples were socially and culturally backward - savages, simpletons and rather childish fellows. His polemic was sharp and unyielding. He quoted Lord Oliver, a former governor of Jamaica: "The African, whether at home or even in exile after the great hiatus of slavery, shows practical shrewdness and aptitude for the affairs of local government. His legal acumen is higher than that of the European." The foundations for The Black Jacobins were laid.

C L R chose, as the focus for his ideas, the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, when the slaves rose up against, defeated and declared independence from France. His tome is not an example of the leisurely historical writing of an academic. It is a revolutionary intervention, matched only by the creative guerrilla war launched by Haitian slaves under the leadership of Toussaint l'Ouverture and, finally, the mass insurrection that broke the back of slavery in the Caribbean. From the publication of The Black Jacobins to this day, Caribbean peoples and activists, including myself, have drawn strength and clarity from the work as we hastened our way to independence, and as we continue to challenge European governments on issues of race and post-colonial domination.

I must declare a personal interest here: C L R's grandfather was my great-grandfather.
Darcus Howe

2. The Second Sex
Simone de Beauvoir (1949)

When my 20-year-old daughter told me she wanted to read The Second Sex, I was delighted but also curious to see whether the book held up for her. It did and it has - and for many of the same reasons it spoke so powerfully to me and a generation of women struggling to understand how we came to feel, to be and to act in the ways that we did. The Second Sex illuminates the powerful idea that woman is made, not born, and that it is the social and economic conditions into which she enters that make her who she is and can be. Her thoughts, her feelings, her actions, her options, are framed within a particular political moment, which gets its force from the enactment of practices that shape and confirm femininity. We are made to fit the times we live in.
Susie Orbach

3. The Communist Manifesto
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)

My wife Caroline put the Communist Manifesto in my Christmas stocking one year. I had never read it before and I found it offered the best possible explanation of what the world was about that I had ever read. It pointed out that the real conflicts in the world were not between black and white, men and women, Muslims, Christians and Jews, Americans, Russians and Chinese; it was about the conflict of economic interest between 95 per cent of the population of the world, who create the world's wealth, and the 5 per cent who own it. I think of Marx as a prophet: the last of the Old Testament prophets. And we should think of him as a teacher. Many political leaders, such as Stalin, have tried to steal him, but he is immune to that, because ideas survive without requiring the endorsement of kings, emperors, dictators or presidents. Karl Marx discovered it all long before I did, and I am very grateful to him.
Tony Benn

4. The New Testament

If a man were to appear today who preached pacifism, who urged setting no store by status, told the wealthy to sell everything they have and give the proceeds to the poor, and freely associated with those whom respectable society regarded as outcasts, we would consider him a radical. The New Testament may have been (mis)used by churches to entrench privileged interests for centuries, but that should not conceal the revolutionary nature of Christ's teachings - nor that it was precisely because he so upset a moneyed, conservative elite that he was crucified. Keir Hardie is just one of many left-wing politicians who have happily confessed that their convictions owed more to the New Testament than to any theoretical tract.

5. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
Robert Tressell (1914)

Tressell's novel, sales of which have grown over the past year, is said to have won the 1945 election for Labour. First published three years after the author's death from tuberculosis at 40, it portrays the wretched conditions of a group of house painters in Mugsborough (based on Hastings). Owen, the hero, tries to convert his fellow workers to socialism, but they are philanthropists, donating their labour to the rich. They see their poverty and subjection as part of the natural order; better things are "not for the likes of us". A novel that has humour, compassion and pathos but remains utterly unsentimental, merciless in its dissection of working-class deference.

6. Rights of Man
Thomas Paine (1791)

Rights of Man belongs to the left in several important ways. It was the first time in history that "rights" had been claimed by anyone but kings and noblemen: we owe the concept of "human rights" to Paine's Promethean project of stealing the concept from the heavens and sharing it on earth. It is also an imperishable statement of the rights of the living over the claims of the dead, and in particular the claims of traditional, landed, aristocratic interests over the rising class of self-educated artisans. Read in conjunction with Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, to which it was originally written as a rebuttal, Paine's essay is an indispensable political classic.

Like any worthwhile work, it contains some ironic and cautionary elements when read today. Paine was too optimistic about the French Revolution, to the "left wing" of which he eventually fell victim. He may have set out the first ever plan for a welfare state, but he was in general opposed to "big government". Yet whenever and wherever people demand constitutional government and written guarantees of their liberties, they are seconding the motion that Paine first proposed.
Christopher Hitchens

7. The Wretched of the Earth
Frantz Fanon (1961)

This canonical collection of essays, dictated during Fanon's last illness in Tunis, has been revered by thinkers and activists from Malcolm X and Che Guevara to Steve Biko, Sartre and Homi Bhabha. The author turns from the role of armed struggle in shaking off colonial rule to the tasks facing decolonised societies, and identifies the enemy within: the middle-class elite, ill-equipped to take over leadership and liable to fall back on conservative allegiances. How to resolve the tension between cherished tradition and modernity? Still the question posed everywhere from Karachi to Caracas.

8. The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius George Orwell (1941)

England, Orwell wrote in this wartime pamphlet, resembles a "family with the wrong members in control". The remedy? Wholesale nationalisation, limitation of incomes and the abolition of public schools. But Orwell was as hard on the left-wing intelligentsia as he was on the "irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts" running the country. Querulous, effete and "flabbily pacifist", English intellectuals, Orwell thought, were fatally cut off from the common culture to which this essay is a paean.

9. Hard Times
Charles Dickens (1854)

A novel that exposed not only the unspeakable conditions in the factories of northern England, but also the arid inhumanity of Victorian political economy. Dickens's particular target was the utilitarians, with their belief in a totally rationalised society. The "eminently practical" Gradgrind, who runs schools in the fictitious Coketown (loosely based on Preston) and demands children be taught nothing but facts, illustrates how rationalism can be an instrument of oppression, driving out freedom and imagination. In its explicit political message, Hard Times is quite unlike Dickens's other novels: J B Priestley thought it his worst, F R Leavis the only one of value. But it tells a gripping story, as all Dickens's novels do.

10. Prison Notebooks
Antonio Gramsci (1929-35)

In 1926 Gramsci, then leader of the Italian Communist Party, was arrested and imprisoned on the orders of Mussolini. During nine years of incarceration, he filled more than 30 notebooks with reflections on history, politics and philosophy that have had a lasting effect on Marxist theory, especially in western Europe. The most influential fruit of Gramsci's labours behind bars was the concept of "hegemony", which administered much-needed shock therapy to the Leninist account of political power under capitalism.

 

We could compile a whole new top 50 made up entirely of books by New Statesman writers, from George Bernard Shaw to Martin Amis and John Pilger-and perhaps, one day, we will. For now, you can find a selection of our favourites here.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads

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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?

***

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