Kingsley Amis. Photograph: Getty Images
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Amis and Larkin: Hate in a cold climate

Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim has its origins in his intense and competitive friendship with Philip Larkin.

Lucky Jim is a young man’s book, in fact the book of two young men – two extremely angry young men. College friends with similar backgrounds, they had graduated from both Oxford and the Second World War to find themselves in an England that was in terminal decline. Nothing worked and the country was bankrupt. Worse still, no one seemed to appreciate the young men’s genius: neither the women they met nor the publishers to whom they sent their work.

When Kingsley Amis began writing his novel Lucky Jim in early 1951, he was 28 years old and an assistant lecturer at a university in Wales. He had written a novel that no one wanted to publish; a book of poems that had been published very badly; a monograph on Graham Greene, commissioned by a shadowy Argentinian outfit, that was never printed; and a postgraduate thesis, produced in the hope of improving his standing at his university, that had been failed by his examiners at Oxford.

Amis’s friend Philip Larkin, the same age as him, was at this point the more accomplished man of letters, having already published a book of poems and two novels. He was also more secure professionally: partly out of desperation, partly out of inclination, he had embarked on a career as a university librarian.

Amis and Larkin had met in their first year at Oxford in 1941 and quickly become good friends. They had some things in common: Both were from “respectable” but unremarkable middle-class backgrounds, which distinguished them from their wealthier classmates. It was a point of pride with them to be unimpressed by Oxford. The two were drawn together by their affection for jazz and their alienation from college.

Both young men spent a good portion of their time at Oxford abusing the literature they were supposed to study. “I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in,” Larkin wrote to Amis about Old English poetry. “What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.” They invented a game called “horsepissing,” in which they’d replace words from classic literary texts with obscenities –“I have gathered up six slender basketfuls OF HORSEPISS,” for example – which they’d write in their own and each other’s copies of famous books. It was a game they never tired of or, indeed, outgrew.

Amis and Larkin graduated into a literary world still dominated by the modernism of Eliot and Pound, and haunted by the shadow of W B Yeats. Though Larkin went through a long apprenticeship to Yeats’s poetry, both men eventually came to think that the modernists had made English-language poetry vague, pretentious and verbose.

Aside from Auden, who got a pass, the world was filled with junk. Dylan Thomas was an intolerable windbag “Somebody once told me,” Amis reported to Larkin, “that Dorothy Parker, was good, at writing, short stories. The other day I bought a book of hers for a shilling, and I am sorry now.” And of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Amis wrote: “I may have missed the irony, but I cannot believe that a man can write as badly as that for fun.”

Amis and Larkin complain about women as often as they complain about writers, though here their troubles diverge. “I really do not think it likely I shall ever get into the same bed as anyone again because it is so much trouble, almost as much trouble as standing for parliament,” writes Larkin, who was stooped, balding and myopic. Amis, who was tall and broad-shouldered, with a full head of hair, responds by regaling Larkin with tales of the multiple women he was juggling. Of an amorous correspondence with a woman he was trying to seduce, Amis reported that “It is nice to be able to write the words ‘I want to fuck you’ in a letter and send it off without qualm,” then asked: “What do you think of all this?” What did Larkin think? “After comparing lives with you for years,” he later wrote, “I see how I’ve been losing: all the while/I’ve met a different gauge of girl from yours.” For the moment, though, he tried to be a supportive friend and urged Amis on.

They were bound together by a hatred of the family – not just their own particular families but families in general. Larkin’s family was worse than Amis’s, by any measure: Sylvia Plath would write a famous poem comparing her father to a Nazi, but Larkin’s father actually was a Nazi – he kept a bust of Hitler in his office until the start of the war. As for Amis, his main trouble was with his in-laws. “Hilary is very nice, as you will agree,” he wrote to Larkin about his fiancée. “But her family, who put in sporadic, unneeded visits are nasty. She has two brothers, who are EXCREMENTALLY EVIL. One has sandals and saffron trousers, and No Socks, and a green shirt, and plays the recorder (yes) and likes Tudor music.” This family would appear in Lucky Jim, pretty much intact, as the Welches.

Later on, when asked about his contribution to Lucky Jim, Larkin would refer understatedly to “a period of intensive joke-swapping just after the war”. And there are certainly plenty of jokes in the correspondence. But it also served as a kind of test run, a way of egging each other on – just how nasty could one be, just how disrespectful, just how profane? Was it enough merely to hate stuff? The answer that began to emerge in the letters was that hatred and irritability could be an almost inexhaustible store of humour, liveliness and insight. If you hated intensely enough, deliberately enough, with enough determination and discrimination, you just might end up with something new, unexpected, true to life.

Then, as now, the world was filled with young college graduates convinced of the sheer, absolute idiocy of everyone, living or dead. The trick was to find a subject on which to focus all that rage. In 1948, the struggling Amis visited Larkin at the University of Leicester where Larkin was employed as a librarian. “I looked round a couple of times and said to myself, ‘Christ, somebody ought to do something with this,’” he later wrote. “Not that it was awful – well, only a bit; it was strange and sort of developed, a whole mode of existence no one had got on to from outside, like the SS in 1940, say.” Not long after this visit, Amis began work on Lucky Jim.

In Lucky Jim, Amis gives us all of Larkin’s problems, and adds some extra of his own. Jim Dixon is a junior professor at a university that is, pointedly, neither Oxford nor Cambridge; he has an idiot boss, Professor Welch, who is also a bore and a snob; he has written an academic article that he detests and must produce a lecture that he will despise and – a problem so horrible he almost dare not mention it – there is “Margaret”, his love interest.

The problems were real, in the sense that they were based in the experience of the author and his friend. But the reader has to wonder, why are they such a problem? Lecturing in a provincial city? Surely better than working down a mine? Not being able to break up with Margaret? Better, perhaps, than no Margaret at all. Meanwhile Professor Welch does not seem like a particularly malignant or abusive authority, or much of an authority at all. And yet Jim wins our sympathy; his anger seems earned and his sufferings seem genuine. How is this possible – and why, when the book came out, did so many people embrace it and Jim?

The answer is at least partly historical. “Junior professor” may sound like an OK job but not in those years of postwar “austerity Britain”. The country had not only suffered significant damage from German bombing during the war, it had also expended far more money on fighting it than it had in the bank. In 1948, the Marshall Plan, of which Britain was the largest beneficiary, began to ease austerity measures, but money, and space, were still tight. When modern readers of Lucky Jim first encounter Jim’s hoarding of cigarettes – “he wasn’t allowed to smoke another cigarette until five o’clock” – they can be forgiven for thinking that he is trying to cut down on his smoking for reasons of health. It soon becomes clear, however, that Jim literally can’t afford to smoke more often. He also can’t afford to go on dates and he certainly can’t afford to live in London while indulging a desire to write or paint, as Welch’s two sons can. Not only can he not afford a London flat, he can’t even afford a place with a modicum of privacy. Jim’s room is constantly being barged in on by guests both welcome and (mostly) unwelcome. Even at the more spacious Welch home, where Jim is a guest, his bedroom has its entrance through a shared bathroom.

Poor Jim. Yet it’s hard not to feel that Jim’s biggest problem is himself. When he is not being outright lazy – in the academic realm, for example, it is his policy “to read as little as possible of any given book”– he is busy committing acts of minor vandalism. Also, he is a drunk.

And yet we like him. We are on his side. Again. Why? Perhaps the wealthy benefactor Gore-Urquhart gets it right when he says near the end that Jim may not have the qualifications but he hasn’t the disqualifications. He isn’t a snob or a fake; he isn’t a suck-up. And he has scruples. It takes a little while for these scruples of his to manifest themselves but they’re there. They’re there in his treatment of those who are not doing as well as he; they’re even there in the way he wages his campaign against his arch-enemy, Bertrand.

Goodness or scruples were never a focal point of the Amis-Larkin correspondence but precision with language, a certain scrupulousness about language, certainly was. “Why can’t I stand people who say once again,” Amis wondered once to Larkin, “as if when other people said again they meant . . .‘twice again’ or ‘three times again’ when what they mean is AGAIN.” Many writers have felt this way about language but if, for someone like Orwell, the cliché was a way for governments to cover up atrocities, for Amis it was also an opportunity. Received ideas papered over reality; words hid the essence of things; and given due attention the awful essence of things could be very, very funny. Take, for example, the famous description of Jim’s hangover:

He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

An elaborate literary metaphor is followed by intimations of, among other things, ancient archaeology and modern totalitarianism in the description of what is, after all, a historic hangover. A whole long history of cliched descriptions of the morning gave Amis a chance to describe what morning, for many people, is really like.

So who is Lucky Jim, in the end? Amis began Lucky Jim as a book about Larkin. When he sent it to Larkin, Larkin’s advice was to make Jim more like Amis. It was Amis who raged at adult life, who chafed so visibly at authority, who had a vast repertoire of faces at his disposal. Jim Dixon in the end is an Amis-Larkin hybrid who manages to be sweeter and more engaging than either of the men on their own. They were both Lucky Jim.

Amis dedicated the book to Larkin, but in the aftermath of its success the two grew apart. Different explanations have been given as to why. Amis was now famous and there were tremendous demands on his time – he was being commissioned to write reviews and asked to make numerous media appearances, and all the while still teaching. Larkin may have had his own reasons for keeping his distance. There were some transparent references in the book to his relationship with Monica Jones, a lecturer in the English department at Leicester, and Jones, understandably, did not appreciate it. Larkin may have had less noble reasons, too: Having published two novels of his own without anything like this kind of response, he may have found his friend’s sudden success a little hard to take.

Another reason may also be guessed at. They had been brought together by their mutual hatred of the universe, which for a while did a fine job of confirming their feelings about it by rejecting and ignoring them. As they began to find their way in the world it became a little harder to hate it, at least with the same intensity. And so their letters to each other dwindled: What was there to say?

They were rescued by the 1960s. Amis and Larkin managed to greet the transformations, disturbances and new thinking with shared hostility. It brought them a whole gamut of things to hate. And they began again to be in regular touch, as they would remain until Larkin’s death from cancer in 1985.

The later correspondence is in many ways funnier, though less charged with competition, than the earlier – Amis complains that he has become fat; Larkin complains that he is even fatter. By then they had become two of the most influential writers of the postwar period. It had become even harder to hate things and sometimes both Amis and Larkin tried too hard. But they had made a very valuable point. It was all right to hate things; it could be interesting and you could make literature out of it. Also, it was funny.

Among all the two men’s accomplishments, Lucky Jim remains unique. Larkin, especially, would do much to make poetry of depressed and declining middle age (“Life is first boredom, then fear/Whether or not we use it, it goes.”), and Amis’s later work is not insensible to the grotesquery of trying to live the rest of your life as if you were 25. Lucky Jim is their one document of youth, their youth. It is in a way as optimistic as it is angry. Jim’s rages are impotent rages, his small acts of vandalism useless and self-destructive – and yet he undertakes them in the belief that they are not meaningless, that the world he is disparaging can be changed. Lucky Jim is a weirdly hopeful book, written when the failures of the men whose sensibilities and lives it captured, as well as the successes, still lay very much in the future. In 1951 all these things were something to imagine and laugh at. Lucky Jim is a lucky book, snatched improbably from time, the product of a collaboration, both editorial and spiritual, that neither writer, once firmly established, could afford to attempt again.

Keith Gessen is a founding editor of n+1. He has written the introduction to a new edition of “Lucky Jim” published by NYRB Classics ($14.95)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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