Down and out in the class war

Suzanne Moore notes the death of the working-class hero - destroyed by drink, drugs, sex and violenc

A working-class hero is something to be. But only if you like the working class and much of the time I don't. I grew up in a class where people made themselves deliberately stupid; they became narrow-minded, closed down and hemmed in. I cannot romanticise the working class and, even if I wanted to, there are few role models. If I were male and northern, maybe I could see myself in a Ken Loach movie or Coronation Street or even glimpse something of myself in the contorted exclamations of John Prescott; but I am female and from the south. I have never lived in Victoria Wood-land nor am I one of the Scots, the new carriers of authentic working-class identity.

Anyway, I have moved class. Accidentally, grudgingly perhaps, but undeniably. I got an education and a job in the media. How much more upwardly mobile do you want? I don't work in Boots, which would have been my mother's aspiration for me. Yet I am not comfortable with being middle class because, if there is anything worse than the working classes, it is the middle classes, and any prolonged encounter with a middle-class person reminds me that I am not one of them. I just do not have the sense of entitlement, nor the capacity for worry.

Strangely enough, I managed to avoid the full horror of the bourgeoisie, even though I studied a lot of Marxist theory at college. An interesting theory, I thought lumpenly at the time, but nothing to do with my life. It was only when I was asked to read books called things like Working-Class Culture that I started to feel uncomfortable. My culture, I argued now that I was finally aware that I was in possession of one, should not be an object of anthropological study. "Who walks around with books called Middle-Class Culture?" I demanded. It wasn't till I worked at the Guardian that I fully realised what it meant to be middle class. Not just middle class . . . but concerned. Anger may be an energy, as Johnny Rotten may have sung, but anger is a working-class energy. To be middle class, I realised, was to be permanently indignant but never full of the kind of righteous and bloody-minded anger that makes you know you are alive. It also means, as far as I can tell, never really enjoying yourself.

Yet we still talk of the petty demarcations of class as though they are entirely external, as though they reside in consumer choices rather than in a mindset. We still tolerate clearly ridiculous statements like "the classless society". We still say that class doesn't matter. Well, it matters to me more and more. It continues to shape my life in ways that I am increasingly resentful of and at the same time grateful for. I am, as they say in California, "conflicted". So was John Lennon when he wrote "Working-Class Hero". It is the nature of the beast. That is why working-class heroes fall from grace so easily.

Look at Gazza. Look at Noel and Liam. Once we cheered their "attitude". Now they are just rich and boorish instead of poor and thick. They went from shoplifting outlaws to shopaholics in just one album. Witness every punch-drunk boxer, every cheating celebrity hairdresser, every footballer coked out of his brain beating up his girlfriend in a nightclub, and ask yourself: what kind of heroes are they? Or take homeboy John Major, who could have been a contender, a class warrior worth celebrating but became . . . John Major.

No, the working-class hero these days represents no one except himself. And then not for long. He is little more than some nostalgic throwback. The decline of industry and the entrance of women into the workforce make a mockery of traditional notions of working-class life. No one really wants working-class men any more. Advertisers ignore them. Tabloid newspapers salivate, not at the thought of the man in the street, but at the young, aspirational woman worker.

The working-class hero, now a member of the long-term unemployed, exists only as fiction and even then he is hardly heroic. He is in the books of Irvine Welsh, in the dirty realism of Richard Billingham's art, in the emotionally deformed Mitchell brothers of EastEnders. He is bowed. He is tearing himself apart. He is no longer sure of who he is. More often than not, working-class masculinity these days is portrayed as simply unlivable. The working-class hero does not disrupt the class system, he does not even challenge it, he simply destroys himself with drink and drugs, sex and violence. His self-annihilation is performed right under Tony's grinning shadow and new Labour's talk of social exclusion. He has been superseded by working-class wannabees, "lads" of all ages and all classes who have co-opted working-class pastimes to pass them off as their own. For the middle class, class identity has always been something of a pick 'n' mix affair. Remember Blair's descent into Essex man on the Des O'Connor show.

Cultural slumming is sanctified in the worlds of art and literature in the pursuit of all that is "real": the monotony of poverty, the deadly boredom, the routine self-oppression. Working-class life may be freeze-framed, but not understood. Instead, we talk a kind of code: inner city, sink estates, crime, heroin epidemics, single mothers, ethnic minorities, teenage pregnancies. What are these things if not a way of talking about working-class life? Why pretend otherwise?

Every so often, something comes along which tells it like it is and we are repulsed. Nick Davies's book Dark Heart revealed, as the subtitle put it, "the shocking truth about hidden Britain", but we didn't really want to know. Gordon Burn's book Happy Like Murderers was condemned because its subject matter - the lives of Fred and Rosemary West - revealed a way of life we do not want to know is lived alongside our own. Gary Oldman's stunning Nil by Mouth showed us victims victimising each other. There was no moral uplift to be found here, and the film was better for it.

Such grim representatives of working-class existence may not be positive role models, but it is too late in the day because positive inequality is increasing. We know that. We are mostly happy to live with its consequences. We do not like seeing teenagers huddled in sleeping-bags, but we hope our own houses hold their value, what with the recession and everything. This is not hypocrisy; this is human.

Policies that attempt to include the excluded are only popular as long as they don't affect the already included. The middle-class retreat from state education is a case in point. Far from being a classless society, it is now possible for many to live as new Victorians with a form of class apartheid. The only members of the working class that some people meet are their cleaners, drivers and prostitutes. Realists know that there is more division between women of different classes than there is between men and women, yet the charade of class denial goes largely unchallenged.

Meanwhile, I sit and watch The Royle Family, a depiction of working-class life, in all its farting glory, a culture of catalogues, chain-smoking, singalongs and endless telly and wonder at the genius of Caroline Aherne, whose suicide attempt I read of in the papers. Or I watch the work of that underrated actress Patsy Palmer, another troubled soul, who plays the wonderful Bianca in EastEnders. I marvel at the continuing brilliance of Kathy Burke in whatever she does.

And I think that the working-class hero has taken his redundancy payment. Whereas the working-class heroine, difficult, feisty, never at ease with herself, must be out there somewhere.

The writer is a columnist with the "Mail on Sunday"

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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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