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A thinker for our times

Global leaders are once again reminding themselves of the insights of the Cambridge academic who hel

John Maynard Keynes has been restored to life. Rusty Keynesian tools – larger budget deficits, tax cuts, accelerated spending programmes and other “economic stimuli” – have been brought back into use the world over to cut off the slide into depression. And they will do the job, if not next year, the year after. But the first Keynesian revolution was not about a rescue operation. Its purpose was to explain how shipwreck might occur; in short, to provide a theoretical basis for better navigation and for steering in seas that were bound to be choppy. Yet, even while the rescue operation is going on, we need to look critically at the economic theory that takes his name.

In his great work The General Theory of Employment, In terest and Money, written during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Keynes said of his ideas that they were "extremely simple, and should be obvious". Market economies were in herently volatile, owing to un certainty about future events being inescapable. Booms were liable to lead to catastrophic collapses followed by long periods of stagnation. Governments had a vital role to play in stabilising market economies. If they did not, the undoubted benefit of markets would be lost and political space would open up for extremists who would offer to solve economic problems by abolishing both markets and liberty. This, in a nutshell, was the Keynesian "political economy".

These ideas were a challenge to the dominant economic models of the day which held that, in the absence of noxious government interference, market economies were naturally stable at full employment. Trading in all markets would always take place at the "right" prices – prices that would "clear the market". This being so, booms and slumps, and prolonged unemployment, could not be generated by the market system itself. If they did happen, it was due to "external shocks". There were many attempts to explain the Great Depression of the 1930s along these lines – as a result of the dislocations of the First World War, of the growth of trade union power to prevent wages falling, and so on. But Keynes rightly regarded such explanations as self-serving. The Great Depression started in the United States, not in war-torn Europe, and in the most lightly regulated, most self-contained, and least unionised, market economy of the world. What were the "external shocks" that caused the Dow Jones Index to fall from 1,000 to 40 between 1929 and 1932, American output to drop by 20 per cent and unemployment to rise to 25 million?

He set out to save capitalism, a system he did not much admire, because he thought it the best hope for the future of civilisation

We can ask exactly the same question today as the world economy slides downwards. The present economic crisis has been generated by a banking system that had been extensively deregulated and in a flexible, largely non-unionised, economy. Indeed, the American capitalism of the past 15 years strongly resembles the capitalism of the 1920s in general character. To Keynes, it seemed obvious that large instabilities were inherent in market processes themselves.

 

John Maynard Keynes was a product of Cambridge civilisation at its most fertile. He was born in 1883 into an academic family, and his circle included not just the most famous philosophers of the day – G E Moore, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein – but also that exotic offshoot of Cambridge, the Bloomsbury Group, a commune of writers and painters with whom he formed his closest friendships. Keynes was caught up in the intellectual ferment and sexual awakening that marked the passage from Victorian to Edwardian England. At the same time, he had a highly practical bent: he was a supreme example of what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “the aesthete manager”, who partitions his life between the pleasures of the mind and the senses and the management of public affairs. After the First World War, Keynes set out to save a capitalist system he did not particularly admire. He did so because he thought it was the best guarantor of the possibility of civilisation. But he was always quite clear that the pursuit of wealth was a means, not an end. He did not much admire economics, either, hoping that some day economists would become as useful as dentists.

All of this made him, as his wife put it, "more than an economist". In fact, he was the most brilliant non-economist who ever applied himself to the study of economics. In this lay both his greatness and his vulnerability. He imposed himself on his profession by a series of profound insights into human behaviour which fitted the turbulence of his times. But these were never – could never be – properly integrated into the core of his discipline, which spewed them out as soon as it conveniently could. He died of heart failure in 1946, having worked himself to death in the service of his country.

The economic theory of Keynes's day, which precluded boom-bust sequences, seemed patently contrary to experience, yet its foundations were so deep-dug, its defences so secure, its reasoning so compelling, that it took Keynes three big books – including a two-volume Treatise on Money – to see how it might be cracked. His attempt to do so was the most heroic intellectual enterprise of the 20th century. It was nothing less than the attempt to overturn the dominant economic paradigm dating from Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

He finally said what he wanted to say in the preface to The General Theory: "A monetary economy, we shall find, is one in which changing views about the future are capable of in fluencing the quantity of employment and not merely its direction." In that pregnant sentence is the whole of the Keynesian revolution.

Keynes's understanding about how economies work was rooted in his theory of knowledge. The future was unknowable: so disaster was always possible. Keynes did not believe that the future was wholly unknowable. Not only can we calculate the probability of winning the Lottery, but we can forecast with tolerable accuracy the price movements of consumer goods over a short period. Yet we "simply do not know" what the price of oil will be in ten, or even five, years' time. Investments which promised returns "at a comparatively distant, and sometimes an indefinitely distant, date" were acts of faith, gambles on the unknown. And in that fact lay the possibility of huge mistakes.

Classical economists could not deny the possibility of unpredictable events. Inventions are by their nature unpredictable, especially as to timing, and many business cycle theorists saw them as generating boom-bust cycles. But mainstream economics, nevertheless, "abstracted" from such disturbances. The technique by which it did so is fascinatingly brought out in an argument about economic method between two 19th-century economists, which Keynes cited as a fork in the road. In 1817, Ricardo wrote to his friend Thomas Malthus: "It appears to me that one great cause of our differences . . . is that you have always in your mind the immediate and temporary effects of particular changes, whereas I put these immediate and temporary effects quite aside, and fix my whole attention on the permanent state of things which will result from them."

To this, Malthus replied: "I certainly am disposed to refer frequently to things as they are, as the only way of making one's writing practically useful to society . . . Besides I really do think that the progress of society consists of irregular movements, and that to omit the consideration of causes which for eight or ten years will give a great stimulus to production and population or a great check to them is to omit the causes of the wealth and poverty of nations . . ."

Keynes sided with Malthus. He regarded the timeless equilibrium method pioneered by Ricardo as the great wrong turning in economics. It was surely the Ricardo-Malthus exchange he had in mind when writing his best-known aphorism: "But this long run is a misleading guide to affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again."

Ricardo may have thought of the "long run" as the length of time it took storms to disperse. But under the influence of mathematics, economists abandoned the notion of time itself, and therefore of the distinction between the long run and the short run. By Keynes's time, "risks", as he put it, "were supposed to be capable of an exact actuarial computation". If all risks could be measured they could be known in advance. So the future could be reduced to the same epistemological status as the present. Prices would always reflect objective probabilities. This amounted to saying that unregulated market economies would generally be extremely stable. Only very clever people, equipped with adequate mathematics, could believe in anything quite so absurd. Under the influence of this theory, governments withdrew from active management and regulation of economic life: it was the age of laissez-faire.

Keynes commented: "The extraordinary achievement of the classical theory was to overcome the beliefs of the 'natural man' and, at the same time, to be wrong." It was wrong because it "attempts to apply highly precise and mathematical methods to material which is itself much too vague to support such treatment".

Keynes did not believe that "natural man" was irrational. The question he asked was: how do we, as rational investors, behave when we – unlike economists – know that the future is uncertain, or, in economist-speak, know that we are "informationally deprived"? His answer was that we adopt certain "conventions": we assume that the future will be more like the past than experience would justify, that existing opinion as expressed in current prices correctly sums up future prospects, and we copy what everyone else is doing. (As he once put it: "Bankers prefer to be ruined in a conventional way.") But any view of the future based on "so flimsy a foundation" is liable to "sudden and violent changes" when the news changes. "The practice of calmness and immobility, of certainty and security suddenly breaks down. New fears and hopes will, without warning, take charge of human conduct . . . the market will be subject to waves of optimistic and pessimistic sentiment, which are unreasoning yet in a sense legitimate where no solid basis exists for a reasonable calculation."

 

But what is rational for individuals is catastrophic for the economy. Subnormal activity is possible because, in times of crisis, money carries a liquidity premium. This increased "propensity to hoard" is decisive in preventing a quick enough fall in interest rates. The mainstream economics of Keynes's day viewed the interest rate (more accurately, the structure of interest rates) as the price that balances the overall supply of saving with the demand for investment. If the desire to save more went up, interest rates would automatically fall; if the desire to save fell, they would rise. This continual balancing act was what made the market economy self-adjusting. Keynes, on the other hand, saw the interest rate as the "premium" for parting with money. Pessimistic views of the future would raise the price for parting with money, even though the supply of saving was increasing and the demand for investment was falling. Keynes's "liquidity preference theory of the rate of interest" was the main reason he gave for his claim that market economies were not automatically self-correcting. Uncertainty was what ruined the classical scheme.

The same uncertainty made monetary policy a dubious agent of recovery. Even a "cheap money" policy by the central bank might not be enough to halt the slide into depression if the public's desire to hoard money was going up at the same time. Even if you provide the water, you can't force a horse to drink. This was Keynes's main argument for the use of fiscal policy to fight a depression. There is only one sure way to get an increase in spending in the face of falling confidence and that is for the government to spend the money itself.

This, in essence, was the Keynesian revolution. Keynesian economics dominated policymaking in the 25 years or so after the Second World War. The free-market ideologists gave this period such a bad press, that we forget how successful it was. Even slow-growing Britain chugged along at between 2 and 3 per cent per capita income growth from 1950-73 without serious interruptions, and the rest of the world, developed and developing, grew quite a bit faster. But an intellectual/ideological rebellion against Keynesian economics was gathering force. It finally got its chance to restore economics to its old tramlines with the rise of inflation from the late 1960s onwards – something which had less to do with Keynesian policy than with the Vietnam War. The truth was that "scientific" economics could not live with the idea of an unpredictable world. So, rather than admit that it could not be a "hard" science like physics, it set out to abolish uncertainty.

The "new" classical economists hit on a weak spot in Keynesian theory. The view that a large part of the future was unknowable seemed to leave out learning from experience or making efficient use of available information. Rational agents went on making the same mistakes. It seemed more reasonable to assume that recurrent events would initiate a learning process, causing agents to be less often surprised by events. This would make economies more stable.

The attack on Keynes's "uncertain" expectations developed from the 1960s onwards, from the "adaptive" expectations of Milton Friedman to the "rational" expectations of Robert Lucas and others. The development of Bayesian statistics and Bayesian decision-theory suggested that agents can always be modelled as having prior probability distributions over events – distributions that are updated by evidence.

 

Today, the idea of radical uncertainty, though ardently championed by “post-Keynesians” such as Paul Davidson, has little currency in mainstream economics; however, it is supported by financiers of an intellectual bent such as George Soros. As a result, uncertainty once more became “risk”, and risk can always be managed, measured, hedged and spread. This underlies the “efficient market hypothesis” – the idea that all share options can be correctly priced. Its acceptance explains the explosion of leveraged finance since the 1980s. The efficient market hypothesis has a further implication. If the market always prices financial assets correctly, the “real” economy – the one involved in the production of goods and non-financial services – will be as stable as the financial sector. Keynes’s idea that “changing views about the future are capable of influencing the quantity of employment” became a discarded heresy.

And yet the questions remain. Is the present crisis a once-in-a-lifetime event, against which it would be as absurd to guard as an earthquake, or is it an ever-present possibility? Do large "surprises" get instantly diffused through the price system or do their effects linger on like toxic waste, preventing full recovery? There are also questions about the present system that Keynes hardly considered. For instance: are some structures of the economy more conducive to macroeconomic stability than others?

This is the terrain of Karl Marx and the underconsump tionist theorists. There is a long tradition, recently revived, which argues that the more unequal the distribution of income, the more unstable an economy will be. Certainly globalisation has shifted GDP shares from wages to profits. In the underconsumptionist tradition, this leads to overinvestment. The explosion of debt finance can be interpreted as a way of postponing the "crisis of realisation".

Keynes did not have a complete answer to the problems we are facing once again. But, like all great thinkers, he leaves us with ideas which compel us to rethink our situation. In the long run, he deserves to ride again.

Lord Skidelsky is the author of "John Maynard Keynes" (three volumes), published in hardback by Macmillan

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year 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