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Your brain on pseudoscience: the rise of popular neurobollocks

The “neuroscience” shelves in bookshops are groaning. But are the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer just self-help books dressed up in a lab coat?

An intellectual pestilence is upon us. Shop shelves groan with books purporting to explain, through snazzy brain-imaging studies, not only how thoughts and emotions function, but how politics and religion work, and what the correct answers are to age-old philosophical controversies. The dazzling real achievements of brain research are routinely pressed into service for questions they were never designed to answer. This is the plague of neuroscientism – aka neurobabble, neurobollocks, or neurotrash – and it’s everywhere.

In my book-strewn lodgings, one literally trips over volumes promising that “the deepest mysteries of what makes us who we are are gradually being unravelled” by neuroscience and cognitive psychology. (Even practising scientists sometimes make such grandiose claims for a general audience, perhaps urged on by their editors: that quotation is from the psychologist Elaine Fox’s interesting book on “the new science of optimism”, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain, published this summer.) In general, the “neural” explanation has become a gold standard of non-fiction exegesis, adding its own brand of computer-assisted lab-coat bling to a whole new industry of intellectual quackery that affects to elucidate even complex sociocultural phenomena. Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: the Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality disavows “reductionism” yet encourages readers to treat people with whom they disagree more as pathological specimens of brain biology than as rational interlocutors.

The New Atheist polemicist Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, interprets brain and other research as showing that there are objective moral truths, enthusiastically inferring – almost as though this were the point all along – that science proves “conservative Islam” is bad.

Happily, a new branch of the neuroscienceexplains everything genre may be created at any time by the simple expedient of adding the prefix “neuro” to whatever you are talking about. Thus, “neuroeconomics” is the latest in a long line of rhetorical attempts to sell the dismal science as a hard one; “molecular gastronomy” has now been trumped in the scientised gluttony stakes by “neurogastronomy”; students of Republican and Democratic brains are doing “neuropolitics”; literature academics practise “neurocriticism”. There is “neurotheology”, “neuromagic” (according to Sleights of Mind, an amusing book about how conjurors exploit perceptual bias) and even “neuromarketing”. Hoping it’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon, I have decided to announce that I, too, am skilled in the newly minted fields of neuroprocrastination and neuroflâneurship.

Illumination is promised on a personal as well as a political level by the junk enlightenment of the popular brain industry. How can I become more creative? How can I make better decisions? How can I be happier? Or thinner? Never fear: brain research has the answers. It is self-help armoured in hard science. Life advice is the hook for nearly all such books. (Some cram the hard sell right into the title – such as John B Arden’s Rewire Your Brain: Think Your Way to a Better Life.) Quite consistently, heir recommendations boil down to a kind of neo- Stoicism, drizzled with brain-juice. In a selfcongratulatory egalitarian age, you can no longer tell people to improve themselves morally. So self-improvement is couched in instrumental, scientifically approved terms.

The idea that a neurological explanation could exhaust the meaning of experience was already being mocked as “medical materialism” by the psychologist William James a century ago. And today’s ubiquitous rhetorical confidence about how the brain works papers over a still-enormous scientific uncertainty. Paul Fletcher, professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, says that he gets “exasperated” by much popular coverage of neuroimaging research, which assumes that “activity in a brain region is the answer to some profound question about psychological processes. This is very hard to justify given how little we currently know about what different regions of the brain actually do.” Too often, he tells me in an email correspondence, a popular writer will “opt for some sort of neuro-flapdoodle in which a highly simplistic and questionable point is accompanied by a suitably grand-sounding neural term and thus acquires a weightiness that it really doesn’t deserve. In my view, this is no different to some mountebank selling quacksalve by talking about the physics of water molecules’ memories, or a beautician talking about action liposomes.”

Shades of grey

The human brain, it is said, is the most complex object in the known universe. That a part of it “lights up” on an fMRI scan does not mean the rest is inactive; nor is it obvious what any such lighting-up indicates; nor is it straightforward to infer general lessons about life from experiments conducted under highly artificial conditions. Nor do we have the faintest clue about the biggest mystery of all – how does a lump of wet grey matter produce the conscious experience you are having right now, reading this paragraph? How come the brain gives rise to the mind? No one knows.

So, instead, here is a recipe for writing a hit popular brain book. You start each chapter with a pat anecdote about an individual’s professional or entrepreneurial success, or narrow escape from peril. You then mine the neuroscientific research for an apparently relevant specific result and narrate the experiment, perhaps interviewing the scientist involved and describing his hair. You then climax in a fit of premature extrapolation, inferring from the scientific result a calming bromide about what it is to function optimally as a modern human being. Voilà, a laboratory-sanctioned Big Idea in digestible narrative form. This is what the psychologist Christopher Chabris has named the “story-study-lesson” model, perhaps first perfected by one Malcolm Gladwell. A series of these threesomes may be packaged into a book, and then resold again and again as a stand-up act on the wonderfully lucrative corporate lecture circuit.

Such is the rigid formula of Imagine: How Creativity Works, published in March this year by the American writer Jonah Lehrer. The book is a shatteringly glib mishmash of magazine yarn, bizarrely incompetent literary criticism, inspiring business stories about mops and dolls and zany overinterpretation of research findings in neuroscience and psychology. Lehrer responded to my hostile review of the book by claiming that I thought the science he was writing about was “useless”, but such garbage needs to be denounced precisely in defence of the achievements of science. (In a sense, as Paul Fletcher points out, such books are “anti science, given that science is supposed to be  our protection against believing whatever we find most convenient, comforting or compelling”.) More recently, Lehrer admitted fabricating quotes by Bob Dylan in Imagine, which was hastily withdrawn from sale, and he resigned from his post at the New Yorker. To invent things supposedly said by the most obsessively studied popular artist of our age is a surprising gambit. Perhaps Lehrer misunderstood his own advice about creativity.

Mastering one’s own brain is also the key to survival in a dog-eat-dog corporate world, as promised by the cognitive scientist Art Markman’s Smart Thinking: How to Think Big, Innovate and Outperform Your Rivals. Meanwhile, the field (or cult) of “neurolinguistic programming” (NLP) sells techniques not only of self-overcoming but of domination over others. (According to a recent NLP handbook, you can “create virtually any and all states” in other people by using “embedded commands”.) The employee using such arcane neurowisdom will get promoted over the heads of his colleagues; the executive will discover expert-sanctioned ways to render his underlings more docile and productive, harnessing “creativity” for profit.

Waterstones now even has a display section labelled “Smart Thinking”, stocked with pop brain tracts. The true function of such books, of course, is to free readers from the responsibility of thinking for themselves. This is made eerily explicit in the psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, published last March, which claims to show that “moral knowledge” is best obtained through “intuition” (arising from unconscious brain processing) rather than by explicit reasoning. “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason,” Haidt enthuses, in a perverse manifesto for autolobotomy. I made an Olympian effort to take his advice seriously, and found myself rejecting the reasoning of his entire book.

Modern neuro-self-help pictures the brain as a kind of recalcitrant Windows PC. You know there is obscure stuff going on under the hood, so you tinker delicately with what you can see to try to coax it into working the way you want. In an earlier age, thinkers pictured the brain as a marvellously subtle clockwork mechanism, that being the cutting-edge high technology of the day. Our own brain-as-computer metaphor has been around for decades: there is the “hardware”, made up of different physical parts (the brain), and the “software”, processing routines that use different neuronal “circuits”. Updating things a bit for the kids, the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, in Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite, explains that the brain is like an iPhone running a bunch of different apps.

Such metaphors are apt to a degree, as long as you remember to get them the right way round. (Gladwell, in Blink – whose motivational selfhelp slogan is that “we can control rapid cognition” – burblingly describes the fusiform gyrus as “an incredibly sophisticated piece of brain software”, though the fusiform gyrus is a physical area of the brain, and so analogous to “hardware” not “software”.) But these writers tend to reach for just one functional story about a brain subsystem – the story that fits with their Big Idea – while ignoring other roles the same system might play. This can lead to a comical inconsistency across different books, and even within the oeuvre of a single author.

Is dopamine “the molecule of intuition”, as Jonah Lehrer risibly suggested in The Decisive Moment (2009), or is it the basis of “the neural highway that’s responsible for generating the pleasurable emotions”, as he wrote in Imagine? (Meanwhile, Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking calls dopamine the “reward chemical” and postulates that extroverts are more responsive to it.) Other recurring stars of the pop literature are the hormone oxytocin (the “love chemical”) and mirror neurons, which allegedly explain empathy. Jonathan Haidt tells the weirdly unexplanatory micro-story that, in one experiment, “The subjects used their mirror neurons, empathised, and felt the other’s pain.” If I tell you to use your mirror neurons, do you know what to do? Alternatively, can you do as Lehrer advises and “listen to” your prefrontal cortex? Self-help can be a tricky business.


Distortion of what and how much we know is bound to occur, Paul Fletcher points out, if the literature is cherry-picked.

“Having outlined your theory,” he says, “you can then cite a finding from a neuroimaging study identifying, for example, activity in a brain region such as the insula . . . You then select from among the many theories of insula function, choosing the one that best fits with your overall hypothesis, but neglecting to mention that nobody really knows what the insula does or that there are many ideas about its possible function.”

But the great movie-monster of nearly all the pop brain literature is another region: the amygdala. It is routinely described as the “ancient” or “primitive” brain, scarily atavistic. There is strong evidence for the amygdala’s role in fear, but then fear is one of the most heavily studied emotions; popularisers downplay or ignore the amygdala’s associations with the cuddlier emotions and memory. The implicit picture is of our uneasy coexistence with a beast inside the head, which needs to be controlled if we are to be happy, or at least liberal. (In The Republican Brain, Mooney suggests that “conservatives and authoritarians” might be the nasty way they are because they have a “more active amygdala”.) René Descartes located the soul in the pineal gland; the moral of modern pop neuroscience is that original sin is physical – a bestial, demonic proto-brain lurking at the heart of darkness within our own skulls. It’s an angry ghost in the machine.

Indeed, despite their technical paraphernalia of neurotransmitters and anterior temporal gyruses, modern pop brain books are offering a spiritual topography. Such is the seductive appeal of fMRI brain scans, their splashes of red, yellow and green lighting up what looks like a black intracranial vacuum. In mass culture, the fMRI scan (usually merged from several individuals) has become a secular icon, the converse of a Hubble Space Telescope image. The latter shows us awe-inspiring vistas of distant nebulae, as though painstakingly airbrushed by a sci-fi book-jacket artist; the former peers the other way, into psychedelic inner space. And the pictures, like religious icons, inspire uncritical devotion: a 2008 study, Fletcher notes, showed that “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph”.

In The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and his collaborator Daniel Simons advise readers to be wary of such “brain porn”, but popular magazines, science websites and books are frenzied consumers and hypers of these scans. “This is your brain on music”, announces a caption to a set of fMRI images, and we are invited to conclude that we now understand more about the experience of listening to music. The “This is your brain on” meme, it seems, is indefinitely extensible: Google results offer “This is your brain on poker”, “This is your brain on metaphor”, “This is your brain on diet soda”, “This is your brain on God” and so on, ad nauseam. I hereby volunteer to submit to a functional magnetic-resonance imaging scan while reading a stack of pop neuroscience volumes, for an illuminating series of pictures entitled This Is Your Brain on Stupid Books About Your Brain.

None of the foregoing should be taken to imply that fMRI and other brain-investigation techniques are useless: there is beautiful and amazing science in how they work and what well-designed experiments can teach us. “One of my favourites,” Fletcher says, “is the observation that one can take measures of brain activity (either using fMRI or EEG) while someone is learning . . . a list of words, and that activity can actually predict whether particular words will be remembered when the person is tested later (even the next day). This to me demonstrates something important – that observing activity in the brain can tell us something about how somebody is processing stimuli in ways that the person themselves is unable to report. With measures like that, we can begin to see how valuable it is to measure brain activity – it is giving us information that would otherwise be hidden from us.”

In this light, one might humbly venture a preliminary diagnosis of the pop brain hacks’ chronic intellectual error. It is that they misleadingly assume we always know how to interpret such “hidden” information, and that it is always more reliably meaningful than what lies in plain view. The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

Steven Poole is the author of the forthcoming book “You Aren’t What You Eat”, which will be published by Union Books in October.

This article was updated on 18 September 2012.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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She’s leaving home: the women who left North Korea

There is something unsettling about the western media’s fascination with North Korea, as these two books reveal.

Yeonmi Park and Hyeonseo Lee were born more than a decade apart and spent much of their early childhood in Hyesan, a North Korean city on the banks of the Yalu River, which separates the “hermit state” from China. Both women are strong-willed and resourceful and share a flair for fashion ­inherited from their mothers, who worked as smugglers and rebelled against North Korea’s strict dress codes whenever they could by buying knock-off Chanel handbags or perming their hair. Yet while Lee was born to parents with high songbun (“status”), Park’s parents fell close to the bottom of North Korea’s rigid caste system. Lee remembers “idyllic summers” picnicking in fields and watching children catch dragonflies; Park was so hungry that she caught them to eat.

A few weeks before Lee turned 18, she walked across the frozen Yalu in her fashionable new red shoes, hoping for a short adventure in China. She has never been able to return. Park was just 13 when she fled Hyesan, starving and desperate, with her mother. They are among the 25,000 or so North Koreans to have escaped successfully from one of the most repressive regimes in modern history and two of only a small number of female defectors to tell their ­stories. Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names and Park’s In Order to Live describe their difficult and very different journeys to freedom and offer an unusual insight into the secretive country that they left behind.

There is something unsettling about the western media’s fascination with North Korea. The government-sanctioned haircuts, the camp gymnastics displays and the state media’s ridiculous rhetoric linger in the public consciousness much longer than reports of executions and gulags. Both books contain titillating details of the country’s weirdness. Park recalls a campaign for patriots to donate their poo during a fertiliser shortage. At her school, a typical maths question went like this: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?” Any child who referred to US citizens without using one of the official descriptions – “American bastard”, “Yankee devil” or “big-nosed Yankee” – was punished for being soft on the enemy.

The most revealing passages describe the rare moments when the alternate universes of North Korea and the rest of the world collide. Park describes watching a bootlegged copy of Titanic and marvelling that “Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were”. The film gave Park her “first small taste of freedom”. That North Koreans would risk imprisonment or death for pirated video games and Hollywood blockbusters shows how strong the desire for entertainment and novelty can be. Yet Park’s memoir also illustrates the strength of propaganda – how else could you “believe that North Korea is a socialist paradise . . . while devouring movies and TV programmes that show ordinary people in enemy nations enjoying a level of prosperity that you couldn’t imagine in your dreams”?

In some ways, Park and Lee were like teenage girls anywhere – falling in love, mooning over romantic pop, discovering pornography, rebelling against their parents – except that their thoughts, movements and even ambitions were regulated by the regime and the threat of violence was ever present. It was “normal, like air pollution”, Lee writes. Her descriptions are brutally matter-of-fact. She attends the execution of a well-liked smuggler; she writes: “When the shot hit the popular guy’s head, it exploded, leaving a fine pink mist.” In North Korea, she explains, most people try to avoid watching executions unless they know the person, in which case it is customary to attend, as they would a funeral.

To the regime, individuals’ lives might be considered worthless; for human traffickers, however, they have a price. After she crossed the river to China, Park was sold for $260, and her mother for $65. The traffickers wanted to rape Park but her mother offered herself up instead. Later, although still only 13, Park was forced to become the mistress of a trafficker and helped him collect, clean up and sell the women in his charge. There was no opportunity to complain of mistreatment to the authorities, because in China North Korean defectors are routinely arrested and sent back home to almost certain death in a prison camp. Her story sheds light on the dark mechanics of the trafficking industry and the chilling consequences of China’s forced repatriation programmes.

Lee’s journey seems to have been driven less by desperation and more by her irrepressible desire for a better life. What kind of teenager would cross one of the world’s most dangerous borders in her cool new shoes, hoping for a holiday? A naive one, certainly – yet her determination and independence are also remarkable. In China, she chooses to go on the run rather than accept the safety of marriage to her boyfriend, a wealthy if dull Chinese-Korean gamer. By the time Lee makes it to South Korea, she has so effectively adapted to Chinese society – she has acquired Chinese ID, speaks Mandarin fluently and is earning a good wage as a translator – that it takes her a long time to convince officials that she is a North Korean defector. As soon as she is safely in South Korea, she risks everything to help her mother and brother escape.

In publishing their memoirs, Lee and Park are taking yet another big risk. Last year, the UN noted how difficult it was to keep witnesses safe. Many North Korean defectors feared speaking to it, even confidentially, for fear of reprisals. Both Park and Lee are hoping that by going public they can expose human rights abuses in their country and increase the pressure on China to change its policy on its neighbour. Yet their stories also tell of the vulnerability and resilience of refugees all over the world. What despair and courage it takes to wade through the freezing water of the Yalu River, or march unguided across the icy border between China and Mongolia in the dead of night, or clamber into a crowded Jeep traversing the Sahara, or cram your children on to an overloaded boat on the Mediterranean, in the faint hope that anything must be better than what you have left behind.

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Tale by Hyeonseo Lee with David John is published by William Collins (304pp, £16.99). In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers is published by Fig Tree (288pp, £18.99).

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

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In the valley of death

Labour and the disintegration of social democracy.

When Fenner Brockway, the Labour MP, lifelong anti-imperialist and peace activist, recalled his early involvement in the Independent Labour Party, he wrote, “On Sunday nights a meeting was conducted rather on the lines of the Labour Church Movement – we had a small voluntary orchestra, sang Labour songs and the speeches were mostly Socialist evangelism, emotion in denunciation of injustice, visionary in their anticipation of a new society.”

Fast-forward a century or so, and Brockway could be describing a Jeremy Corbyn leadership rally: the same joyfulness, fervour of conviction and ecstasy of expression, only this time clothed in the self-belief of the Labourist left, rather than Nonconformist millenarianism, and playing to a larger crowd. Corbyn’s campaign reinvented the party political rally, a form of British politicking long since presumed dead. He created a space in which the lost tribes of the British left could reunite, and new followers join the throng. Suddenly a “surge” was under way, a democratic explosion within the mainstream body politic, not safely contained outside it.

Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party is undoubtedly a seismic event. But it does not herald a wider political transformation. For although the left of the Labour Party is not a sect, it is sectarian. It inhabits a world-view, culture and practice of politics that is largely self-referential and enclosed. Save for brief moments of popular experimentalism – such as the two occasions when Ken Livingstone governed London – its reach has been minimal. Corbyn’s policy platform is an unreconstructed Bennite one, defined by nationalisation and reinstatement of the postwar settlement, given a fresh lease of life by revulsion at foreign wars and the social consequences of austerity. While his campaign tapped into discontent with the decrepit state of mainstream Labour politics, it did not give birth to a new social movement, rooted in popular struggle, like those that have sprung up in southern Europe. His improbable leadership of the Labour Party is another symptom of the crisis of social democracy, not the incubator of its future.

That social democracy is in crisis across Europe is indisputable. Few parties of the democratic left now register more than 30 per cent in national elections. In its northern European heartlands, social democracy is either besieged by populist anti-immigrant parties or marginalised by a dominant centre right. Even in Germany, where a recognisably social-democratic culture still exists, the SPD is reduced to junior-party status, topping out at 25 per cent of the electorate. Elsewhere, austerity has either destroyed the mainstream left, as in Greece, or cut it back to its core, as in Spain and France. Only in Italy, where the right has been discredited by years of corruption and abject economic performance, does the centre left have any energy.

Britain’s first-past-the-post system has protected the Labour Party from the full force of these currents, but the pull of their logic is at work here, too: political loyalties have fractured, immigration has split the core working-class vote, and the financial crisis has ushered in a politics of economic security, not reform.

The last time the death notices of social democracy were written in the early 1990s, a wave of Third Way revisionism brought it back to life. Then, social-democratic parties expanded out of their working-class electoral heartlands and public-sector redoubts, forging new coalitions of support. The freshly modernised centre left won power across Europe and in the United States. But the breadth of its appeal was not matched by depth. Over time, centrist voters proved fickle and the core vote started to abstain or desert to the anti-immigrant right. Centre-left parties began to shed votes and lose power. The financial crisis provided the coup de grâce, punishing incumbents and passing the baton of energetic opposition to new parties of the left such as Syriza and Podemos.

Today, it is clear that Third Way modernisation relied on historical circumstances that cannot be repeated now: principally a long wave of growth, in which a build-up of household debt and government transfers maintained living standards, despite rising asset inequality and the sundering of the link between productivity increases and wages. “Globalisation plus good schools” is no longer a plausible formula for winning back working-class voters, and the fiscal headroom for binding the middle classes into an electoral coalition built on investment in public services has shrunk. Nor can the rise of identity politics, whether of the civic nationalist or the anti-immigrant kind, be properly understood, let alone contested, within a political strategy that gives pride of place to individual social mobility. Even the crowning achievement of the New Labour era – the rescue and revitalisation of public services – would now require a very different set of tools from the centralism of the turn-of-the-century delivery state.


In the early 1990s, New Labour thinkers looked across the Atlantic for inspiration and renewal. Bill Clinton’s insatiable curiosity for policy ideas rubbed off on Blair and his advisers, but the most important lessons were strategic: how to win back voters in the mainstream of politics and push the right off the centre ground. Today, the transatlantic cable is broken. Latino migration to the US has replenished the Democrats’ vote base and refreshed its politics, while immigration has done the reverse to European social democrats. The White House cannot be won with older white voters, but, in Europe, ageing societies have become more conservative, making it harder for the reformist left to win. At the last general election, Labour won every age group up to those aged 55 and over, but haemorrhaged support among pensioners. The party’s Russell Brand moment never arrived. Inequalities of turnout between young and old, prosperous and poor, are such that it likely never will.

The conservatism of ageing societies, the cultural and political fracturing of the working class, and the structural dysfunctions of debt-laden western economies all pose grave challenges to social-democratic parties. The task is magnified for Labour by the break-up of the political unity of the British state, and the collapse of its support in its Scottish heartlands. Unlike in the 1980s, it cannot fall back on the ballast of a centrist trade union movement and cross-national solidarities of class.

More serious still, its intellectual resources are depleted, left and right. Those who have sought to renew Labour at critical moments in its history have always had to battle against a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in the party. Because it famously owes more to Methodism than Marx, it has never possessed a theoretical tradition. In the 20th century, it borrowed heavily from Liberal giants such as Keynes and Beveridge, and turned to the Fabians and the London School of Economics for technocratic expertise when economic planning and the construction of the welfare state demanded it. But it only ever produced a few big thinkers of its own, such as Tawney, G D H Cole and Crosland, and even their influence on the course of Labour politics was limited. When it last faced the prospect of terminal decline, in the 1980s, it had almost no intellectual resources to fall back on. Instead, it was the Gramscian thinkers grouped around Marxism Today who furnished it with an analysis of Thatcherism and a route map towards re-election.

New Labour’s openness to wider currents of ideas – at least in its early, formative phase – allowed it to draw on fresh thinking from academia, think tanks and elsewhere. But the Labour Party’s intellectual revival in the late 1980s and 1990s owed much to a cadre of soft-left MPs, epitomised by Robin Cook and Gordon Brown, who could act as receptors into the labour movement of the thinking that was taking place outside it. No such cadre exists today. The soft-left tradition was weakened by defection, desertion and (tragically, in Cook’s case) death, and what remained of it in the parliamentary party at the turn of this century had become a Brownite patronage network. Ed Miliband failed to revive it, despite being suited to the task. The reductio ad absurdum of this decline was reached in the desperate political gymnastics of Andy Burnham’s leadership campaign.

Labour’s anti-intellectualism would be less of a problem if the party were well attuned to public sentiment and capable of intuiting the sources of change in British society. But it is not. Like other mainstream political parties, it has become hollowed out, professionalised and state-centred in recent decades. As the class structures that gave birth to Labour politics declined in the second half of the 20th century so, too, did the party’s roots in civil society begin to shrink. Its forms of popular culture, its institutions and its membership base all withered, leaving it with leaders drawn from a professional caste, possessed with all the skills and networks necessary to navigate Westminster and Whitehall, but with not much underneath or around them in the wider society.

This decline has been apparent since the late 1970s – certainly since Eric Hobsbawm wrote his celebrated essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” (1978). And yet, despite significantly broadening its electoral appeal in the New Labour era, Labour has not created social and economic bases to replace those lost with the passing of industrial society. It has become caught in what the political scientist Peter Mair diagnosed as the trap facing all centrist parties: the one between responsibility and responsiveness. Parties aiming for elected office seek the patina of responsibility, fiscal and political. They set out credible, carefully crafted programmes for government, mindful of its constraints and compromises. Instead of representing the people to the state, they increasingly represent the state to the people. This leaves the field open for populists, who eschew responsibility in favour of responsiveness, unmediated authenticity and the articulation of an anti-politics. In recent years, only the SNP has sprung this trap, combining broad appeal with seriousness of governing purpose.


Corbyn’s surge did not reverse this decline. The number of trade unionists voting in the 2015 leadership election was lower than that in 2010, and even the addition of registered supporters did not push the selectorate back up to where it was in the mid-1990s (he is also now learning that leadership itself can’t be dissolved into networks, and that the task of leading demands considerable skills). Yet Corbyn’s campaign held up a mirror to the Labour Party, showing it how shrunken, uninspiring and detached from society it had become. Over the course of a few months, he mobilised 16,000 volunteers, pulled in thousands of new activists, and showed the Labour high command how to do digital politics. Some of his supporters are day trippers who won’t stick around. But many more are for real, with decent intentions; and they have changed the party irrevocably. Corbyn used Labour’s new internal democracy to open the party up, and in so doing placed the cadaver in full view. There is no going back.

Is social democracy finished, a relic of 20th-century class society, as John Gray and others predicted three decades or so ago? Its twin historic tasks – to tame and humanise capitalism, while harnessing its dynamism – remain as valid and pressing as ever. But in this post-crash era, it needs to equip itself with new economic reform agendas. Croslandite and Third Way revisionism were both creatures of eras of economic moderation, and shared a conviction that capitalism had overcome its contradictions. The great financial crisis of 2007-2008 destroyed those assumptions, and threw into sharp relief the challenge of stabilising highly financialised economies while reducing the inequalities and imbalances to which they are subject. Despite his political failure, Ed Miliband was undoubtedly right to see this as the most important challenge facing contemporary social democrats. Without being able to offer more widely shared prosperity, generated from within market economies, and not just by redistribution, social democracy is purposeless.

The intellectual resources for this renewal are readily to hand, in both new Keynesian and heterodox economic thinking, as well as a welter of empirical analyses of central policy challenges, such as productivity and wage growth, household indebtedness, and so on. Indeed, far more original new economic thinking has come from the centre left since the financial crisis than from the right of politics, where think tanks and commentators rehash comfortable Thatcherite nostrums. Politically, however, the story is reversed. Labour’s economic credibility has been shot to pieces since the recession and the party shows no signs of knowing how to restore it. Simply opposing austerity will not do the trick, and arguments about the deficit – let alone quantitative easing – will be otiose by 2020, unless the global economy tips back into recession (and relying on that eventuality would be unwise, if not reckless).

More fundamental still, Labour and its sister parties in Europe have yet to work out how to build broad coalitions for economic reform, in the absence of the strong trade unions and organised workers’ movements that they had at their back in the postwar period. The growth of self-employment, the spread of automation, and the decline of public-sector jobs are all making labour itself more disorganised and therefore harder to mobilise politically. Meanwhile, older voters turn a deaf ear to labour-market concerns. If they are on zero-hours contracts, they are likely to be content with them. If not, they are concerned about savings, asset prices and stable inflation. Even in countries with strong trade unions and large manufacturing sectors, there has been a substantial growth in flexible service-sector employment, and a concomitant decline in the political muscle generated in the workplace.

If nothing else, Corbyn’s victory is a dramatic forcing mechanism for the mainstream of the Labour Party to confront these challenges. A generation of Labour MPs and activists grew up in the shadow of Blair and Brown, and now must shoulder the burden of rebuilding the party without the intellectual and political leadership they once took for granted. They are now freed from the narcissistic feuds and rivalries of that era, but this liberty comes with the heavy responsibility of toiling hard to haul the party back. The scale of their defeat is such that cosmetic change will be wholly inadequate. Corbyn’s campaign showed up the profound individual organisational and intellectual weaknesses of the old-right, New Labour and soft-left wings of the party. The soft left vacillated hopelessly and the old right, deprived of the unions and the power of its MPs, had little, if anything to offer. Blairite standard-bearers were blunt and unforgiving in their analysis of Labour’s 2015 election defeat, but they had no answer to the mobilisation taking place in front of their eyes, nor did they have the magic ingredient that had once made them so successful, of what Hobsbawm in 1988 called “having the future in your bones”. They cannot now retread their old path to power.


The character of the Labour Party that emerges from this tumult will tell us whether it has a future as a serious political party. Corbyn’s paradox is that he harnessed democratic energy to a familiar statist and dirigiste project. Labour can only hope to renew if it embraces the democracy and ditches the dirigisme: if any part of 20th-century social democracy needs consigning to history, it is the preference for centralist standardisation and bureaucratic public administration. There are strong currents of both liberalism and conservatism in contemporary Britain, but each shares a hostility to remote, dominant power, whether in the state or in the market. Many of the most liberating contemporary social and economic trends, not least the diffusion of digital technologies, point in the direction of individual empowerment and political decentralisation. Labour has been too slow to grasp this.

Importantly, political and economic dynamism in capitalist economies today is increasingly concentrated in our cities, and this is where progressive politics is strongest. Although national elections cannot be won with cosmopolitan voters alone, city leadership is a vital source of energy, and many of Labour’s best politicians are now found in the town halls and civic offices of Britain. These leaders will be a critical building block in Labour’s renewal, whenever it comes. But that will require the party to understand and embrace the devolution of power, rather than tolerate or, worse still, reject it.

Class reductionism on the Corbynite left gives it a tin ear to the claims of territory and patriotic identity, as well as the demands for power currently swelling across the UK, not just in Scotland, but in England, too. Unchallenged, this will place Labour on the wrong side of one of the most important vectors of British politics: the reconfiguration of the UK as a federal (or quasi-federal) entity. The rise of the SNP cannot be accounted for as an expression of anti-austerity
politics, any more than the demands for greater recognition of English identity can be reduced to anti-immigrant sentiment. Both are expressions of deeper underlying historical changes in the Union, as well as the importance of culture and identity in politics. Without sensitivity to these claims, and an awareness of their democratic potential, Labour will become marginal or irrelevant, when it should be transformative.

There are grounds for optimism on the centre left. Economic reform, meeting the challenges of climate change and ageing, and the promise of digital technologies – all of these hold progressive potential. Social democracy could be just as well placed as any other tradition to capitalise on what the 2020s will bring; it doesn’t need to remain trapped between hollowed-out centrist technocracy and revanchist state socialism. But the depth of the crisis it faces demands deep and sustained rethinking, as well as political reorganisation. The rupture that Corbyn’s election has forced must be a catalyst for that change, or it will never come.

Nick Pearce is the newly appointed Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath and the outgoing director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left