Andrew Marr presenting "History of the World". Photograph: BBC
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Popular history has been conquered by a complacent liberalism

Television history, in particular, has changed - and not always for the better.

At the end of September, the BBC screened the first part of its eight-part History of the World, written and presented by Andrew Marr. Within days of the show’s first episode, another world historian, Eric Hobsbawm, died, at the age of 94. Although the proximity of the two events was coincidental, it did seem as if the baton was being passed from one public historian, keen to paint the “big picture” and with a taste for the grand sweep, to another.

However, a closer comparison of the two men reveals how far popular history has changed and not always for the better. For Marr’s series shows the extent to which the struggle to interpret our history has been won by a complacent liberalism. And victory has been rather easy, as many historians have simply refused to join the fight.

This is a triumph with serious consequences – especially for anyone trying to make sense of the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Our view of history shapes our attitude towards contemporary politics. Consciously or not, we are perpetually judging the present by the measure of the past. Once a particular “history” that supports the status quo becomes all-powerful, it is very difficult to make alternative political and economic solutions seem either plausible or necessary.

Hobsbawm and his generation of intellectuals were keenly aware of how damaging liberal complacency could be. In the 1920s, the postwar victors were convinced that they could impose the pre-1914 laissez-faire order without fully incorporating the working class – as if the First World War and the Russian Revolution had never happened. Hobsbawm, a teenager in 1930s Berlin, witnessed for himself the disastrous consequences of such conventional thinking – soaring unemployment, social breakdown and the rise of Nazism.

Yet after the Second World War the tables were turned. Now the western elite accepted that states had to control markets and improve workers’ lives. This analysis lay behind the grand social-democratic projects of the era – welfare states, the Bretton Woods system and the Marshall Plan. It also underpinned the “Marxist” history that dominated the postwar era: socio-economic forces were central; and educated experts, who understood those forces, could use reason and science to improve society and help the working classes.

However, just as Marxist-influenced history reached its high tide in the 1960s and 1970s, serious signs of decay had set in. For the convulsions of 1968 triggered a powerful – and in many ways justified – critique that left it looking deeply old-fashioned. The main target of the ’68-ers was the technocrat-worker alliance that characterised the era of social democracy. Scientists, the new radicals argued, far from being progressive, were apparatchiks of the military- industrial complex. As for the supposedly heroic working class, they had sold their souls to consumerism. History’s real heroes were the victims of cultural discrimination – whether ethnic minorities, colonised peoples, women or homosexuals.

This political sea change required an entirely new view of the past. With cultural identity now central, historians scrutinised subjective perceptions, not objective economic conditions. In the vanguard were Ranajit Guha and the “subaltern” historical school, who sought to rescue the cultures of the Indian poor for posterity; meanwhile, gender historians surveyed the many ways in which patriarchy shaped everything from progressive politics to the micro-power relations of everyday life.

This cultural turn was accompanied by an attack on notions of historical “progress”. Marxists were now lumped together with liberal “Whig” historians, such as Macaulay, as the false sirens of an Enlightenment that claimed “rationality” would make society more fair and free, when it often did the exact opposite. Newly fashionable “postmodernist” thinkers now saw progress as the highway to the Gulag and the death camp.

Postmodernists insisted that historians themselves, with their simple-minded “grand narratives” – whether “Whig” stories of progress towards liberal democracy and capitalism, or Marxist fables of progress towards communism – were contributing to this oppressive way of thinking. Historians had to avoid all grand theorising and concentrate on the marginalised and the powerless.

One casualty of this approach was economic history. Once the aristocracy of the profession, economic historians were now regarded as servants of hegemony. As free markets swept across the globe after 1989, there were even stronger reasons for historians – like most humanities academics, generally people of the left – to concentrate on the cultural sphere.

Hobsbawm represented all the postmodernists hated: the mandarin surveying the world from Olympian heights, uninterested in everyday life. Surely this was the attitude that led to grandiose projects of social engineering that caused the death of millions (not least in the Soviet Union, of which Hobsbawm was an unrepentant supporter)?

In somewhat diluted form, postmodernist ideas have reshaped both academic and popular history, and with many positive effects. In their insistence on the value of the experiences of ordinary people, such histories fit with a more democratic age. The recent BBC series presented by Pamela Cox, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, is an excellent example – giving us the real voices of the domestic servant class and driving a coach and horses through the Tory romanticism of Downton Abbey. These histories have also had a broader cultural effect, contributing to a growing intolerance of the abuse of power in ordinary life.

Necessary and important as these gains have been, the rejection of the most influential grand narratives has brought serious losses. In their abandonment of the big picture in favour of the fragment, academic historians have ceded the political high ground. And this crucial strategic space has been occupied by popular historians from the liberal centre and the right, such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts.

Until the 1980s, it was the right that was most suspicious of grand narratives, whether Marxist or Whig. For them, history was one damn thing after another, a long series of accidents and of great men making decisions; or, for a more “new-age” right, of randomly significant butterflies fluttering their wings in some corner of the globe or other.

Yet after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it suddenly seemed that history was going their way; the right embraced grand narratives with relish. In his history of the cold war, The Atlantic and its Enemies (2010), the Thatcherite Norman Stone shamefacedly admitted that he had ended up writing a Whig history of progress, even though he had spent much of his youth condemning the very idea.
 
And it is various forms of Whiggery that dominate our history today – whether propagated by those on the centre-right, such as Stone, or on the centre-left, such as Marr. Much of this is ideological rather than economic Whiggery: history is seen as a battle between liberalism and totalitarianism, and liberalism has won. The political theorist Francis Fukuyama put the argument most eloquently in his 1989 essay “The End of History?”. But it also underpinned some of the most popular histories of the early 21st century, including Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (2000-02).

We also see it in the widespread notion that Nazism and Stalinism were essentially the same – violently utopian ideologies created by dangerous anti-liberal intellectuals. We are still battling with their heirs, we are told, but the struggle will inevitably be won. This, in essence, was the history that George W Bush used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Economic Whiggery is equally influential, though it is more frequently peddled by science writers and economists than by historians. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) tells an optimistic story of the defeat of warrior values by a peaceable liberalism. More forthright is Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2010). Yoking Darwinism to free market economics, it casts merchants as the main agents of progress in human history.

Ridley’s analysis is a cruder version of a fashionable “big history” that combines the insights of evolutionary science with praise for economic globalisation (though it tends to be much more pessimistic about its environmental consequences than Ridley is). In his History of the World, Marr has whipped up all these trends into a tasty dish, mixing evolutionary history with Whiggish enthusiasms about global trade and warnings about “utopian” ideologies, though marinated in a conservative pessimism about human nature and political improvement.

Marr’s series is expertly crafted and stimulating; but it rests on an unexamined assumption common to much popular history today: it assumes, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, that “there is no such thing as society”. Marr gives us evolutionary imperatives, economic forces, ideologies and great (or evil) men. But the social groups Hobsbawm saw as central to history are in the background.

The Marxists certainly saw these social groups in crude terms – the postmodernists rightly argued that history was not just driven by economic “classes” but by a range of different groups, in part founded on culture and identity. Even so, occupation is enormously important in creating those identities. To ignore that is to deprive ourselves of a powerful tool for understanding.

The violence of the 20th century was not primarily caused by the pursuit of illiberal utopias, nor by evil dictators. It was largely caused by struggles between groups – social, national and ethnic – over questions of hierarchy and equality. These were the battles that brought Hobsbawm and his fellow Berliners on to the streets.

We saw the consequences of this analytical failure in the incomprehension of commentators and policy-makers when confronted with the turmoil of the Arab spring. Having seen the Middle East as the site of a struggle between liberals and “totalitarian” Islamists, they were bewildered as conflict exploded between competing social and ethno-religious groups – poor Islamists, their more business-orientated co-religionists, leftist workers, cosmopolitan liberals, Shias, Sunnis and Christians.

It is no surprise that the left is not flourishing in this intellectual environment. For the left is primarily concerned with equality. And if social hierarchies and the struggles of social and ethnic groups to flatten or bolster them are airbrushed from the historical record, the left’s agenda appears wholly irrelevant.

But even more serious, perhaps, is the effect of Whiggish ideas of gradual progress on our understanding of the financial crisis. We are so used to thinking of history as a process of gradual improvement that we find it difficult to remember how suddenly world orders break down – as they did in 1918, the 1930s or the 1970s – and how radically our ideas have to change in response. Whig gradualism simply cannot prepare us for the very serious challenges ahead.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward”. The British are right to value their historians, and the BBC should be investing in grand histories. Yet they have to choose the right ones. For bad history may be worse than no history at all.

David Priestland is the author of “Merchant, Soldier, Sage: a New History of Power” (Allen Lane, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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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