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Crying out for justice

As the latest inquiry into Israel’s war on Gaza hears the harrowing testimonies of Palestinian survi

On 28 June, the UN mission investigating alleged war crimes committed during Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in January began public hearings in the coastal territory. The testimony of witnesses who had seen relatives killed and property destroyed in the war, which Israel codenamed Operation Cast Lead, was screened in a local hall and broadcast live on some TV channels in the Middle East. A plan to webcast the proceedings failed, for technical reasons, but a video will be made available on the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (www.ohchr.org), and another round of hearings will be held in Geneva on 6 and 7 July. “The purpose of the public hearings in Gaza and Geneva is to show the faces and broadcast the voices of victims – all of the victims,” the chair of the mission, Justice Richard Goldstone, said last week.

The emphasis is significant, because when the panel was established by the UN Human Rights Council in January, it was asked to investigate only the conduct of Israeli forces – a remit that, according to Tom Porteous, London director of Human Rights Watch, was “wrong in principle, and politically wrong”. The allegations that Israel was violating the rules of war began to surface in the first days of the offensive – it was accused of shelling civilian areas, using banned weapons such as white phosphorus, and attacking medical facilities and other non-military targets. But Hamas and other Palestinian factions were also accused of war crimes. The operation was intended to stop Palestinian militants firing rockets at towns in southern Israel – according to Amnesty International, around 15 Israeli civilians were killed by rockets fired from Gaza between June 2004 and December 2008, and another three were killed in the barrage that continued throughout the three weeks of the war. Hamas has also been accused of other human rights abuses and violations of international law, including deploying fighters in civilian homes, firing rockets from bases close to civilian areas, and conducting punitive attacks against its internal rivals.

When Goldstone was appointed chair of the inquiry in April, he made it plain that he intended to look at the ­actions of all parties, but its reputation for impartiality had already been damaged: Israel dismissed it as a “masquerade”, and refused to co-operate. Goldstone and his colleagues intended to visit towns in southern Israel to investigate the effect of Palestinian rocket fire, but were not allowed to enter the country.

Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s researcher in Israel and the occupied territories, suggests that this doesn’t matter greatly: Goldstone and his colleagues were able to enter the Gaza Strip through Egypt, and the territory will provide the most important focus for both parts of their work. “The situation in southern Israel is very clear, whereas the situation in Gaza isn’t,” Rovera says. The inquiry’s task is to establish which of Israel’s attacks on targets in Gaza were legitimate under the rules of law, and which were not, whereas there is no question about the status of Palestinian attacks on southern Israel: indiscriminate rocket fire against civilian targets is inherently unlawful, and identifying those responsible will not be difficult, as the Palestinian militants claim credit for their actions.

Goldstone’s inquiry is the second the UN has established into the war, in which as many as 1,400 Palestinians were killed. The first had an even more limited remit: to investigate nine incidents in which UN property was attacked, including the shelling of the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp on 6 January, the day after the school opened as a shelter for civilians. The UN estimated that around 40 people were killed in this single assault. Israel said its troops were responding to fire from militants near the school, but the inquiry found no firing from within the compound or its immediate vicinity. Of the nine incidents investigated, the inquiry found Israel responsible in seven cases, Hamas “or another Palestinian actor” responsible in one, and failed to establish responsibility in another.

Porteous says the 30-page summary of the report provides “compelling evidence that the Israel Defence Forces violated the laws of war during their military operations around UN installations in Gaza”. The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has requested $10.4m (£6.2m) compensation from Israel for damage caused to UN property, but Porteous regrets that he distanced himself from the report’s findings: “There was a clear need for a broader and more comprehensive investigation into allegations of violations of the rules of war, by both sides.”

Goldstone’s inquiry will report in September, but since it is not backed by the Security Council, it is unlikely to lead to any further action. “We think Goldstone will come up with recommendations, but if the report hits a political brick wall, it might be necessary to take the investigation to a higher level,” Porteous says. He has called on the UN secretary general and all states that “profess to care about the vital importance of upholding the rule of law in international ­affairs” to lend their weight to the campaign to bring suspected war criminals to trial.

The Security Council’s decision to refer alleged war crimes in Sudan to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has led to the indictment of President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, but the model will not work in the case of Gaza. In March, the Palestinian Authority recognised the ICC in an attempt to clear the way for a full investigation into alleged war crimes, yet it is not clear whether it can do so since it is not a state, and Israel is not a signatory to the court’s founding charter.

“It’s extremely unlikely that anything will happen in the next few months,” Rovera says. She explains that the emphasis is on collecting and preserving evidence that might be used in the future. This week, Amnesty published a major report on Operation Cast Lead, called 22 Days of Death and Destruction, which concluded that much of the destruction was “wanton” and said that “children playing on the roofs of their homes or in the street . . . were killed in broad daylight” by highly accurate missiles launched by helicopter and unmanned drones. Human Rights Watch also released a report exploring six incidents in which 29 civilians were killed by drone-launched missiles.

Rovera’s assertion that “you have to take the long view” is borne out by a case currently going through the Spanish courts. On 29 January, less than two weeks after Operation Cast Lead came to an end, Spain’s national court announced that it would hear a case concerning events in the territory six and a half years earlier. At midnight on 22 July 2002, an Israeli F16 fighter jet dropped a 985kg bomb on an apartment building in the al-Daraj district of Gaza City. The target was Salah Shehade, thought to be the leader of the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. Shehade was killed, along with his guard, his wife and daughter, and 12 other civilians. Last June, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), which is based in Gaza, filed suit in Spain on behalf of six Palestinians who survived the attack. The case depended on evidence that the seven Israeli officials cited knew that civilians might be killed in the attack, and still decided to proceed. The al-Daraj bombing was part of a policy of “widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population”, the PCHR said, and as such it constituted both a crime against humanity and a breach of the Geneva Conventions.

Israel appealed against the decision to hear the al-Daraj case in Spain. Officials sent a 400-page document to the Spanish legal team, stating that the operation was subject to proceedings in Israel, and therefore the Spanish court should have declined to exercise jurisdiction, but on 4 May a Spanish judge announced that the case would continue. “The Spanish court rejected the claim that Israel had adequately investigated the crime,” says Raji Sourani, director of the PCHR.

Sourani stresses that the decision’s significance is not limited to the al-Daraj case: “The court also ruled that, in view of the status of Gaza as occupied territory – that is, not part of Israel – Spanish criminal law does not accord Israel primary jurisdiction over suspected Israeli war criminals.” Instead, the court affirmed the principle of universal jurisdiction, which states that torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity are so serious that they may be tried in any country, regardless of where they were committed.

Universal jurisdiction has been used in other cases, most notably that of General Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, who was arrested in London in October 1998 after an international warrant was issued by a Spanish judge. Pinochet was kept under house arrest until March 2000, when the then home secretary, Jack Straw, released him on grounds of ill health. Pinochet returned to Chile, yet he did not entirely escape justice – there were renewed attempts to prosecute him in Chile, and by the time of his death in 2006, he had been implicated in more than 300 criminal charges.

The International Federation for Human Rights has calculated that 75 complaints have been filed or prosecutions opened on the basis of universal jurisdiction in European courts since 2006, and five offenders have been convicted. The first successful prosecution in the UK was in July 2005, when the Afghan militia leader Faryadi Zardad was convicted of acts of torture and hostage-taking in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Heads of state enjoy immunity from prosecution, so complaints filed against George W Bush and Robert Mugabe have not been investigated, and Human Rights Watch says that immunity seems to be extended to every sitting minister of foreign governments: in February 2004, for example, a London court rejected an application for an arrest warrant against Israel’s defence minister, Shaul Mofaz.

The provision reflects that universal jurisdiction cases are conducted in the face of considerable international pressure: “European countries don’t want to get into a fight with Israel and the US,” Rovera observes. In 1993, Belgium passed universal jurisdiction legislation for “grave breaches of international humanitarian law”, later amended to include crimes against humanity and genocide: Carla Ferstman, the director of Redress, which seeks reparation for survivors of torture, says it was “universal jurisdiction of the purest kind”, as it allowed prosecutions irrespective of where the crime took place or whether the perpetrator was in the country. It also allowed people who had no connection with Belgium to bring a case, which resulted in what Ferstman calls “forum shopping”. A flood of lawsuits, including an attempt to prosecute Ariel Sharon for his role in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Shatila during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, led to revisions of the law in 2003.

Britain has also considered revising its legislation. In 2005, the PCHR filed a lawsuit in the UK against Doron Almog, head of the Israeli army southern command between 2000 and 2003, for committing grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention. When he arrived at Heathrow, the British-Israeli lawyer Daniel Machover, who was part of the team that brought the al-Daraj suit in Spain, attempted to arrest him on a warrant issued by a magistrate. Almog heard about the warrant and refused to leave his plane. He escaped arrest by flying back to Israel. There are differing reports of what happened next: some say that Tony Blair attempted to bring the system under political control by ensuring that only the attorney general could issue warrants for the arrest of individuals like Almog, but others say the Blair government refused a request from the government of Israel to make the change.

The government is now considering what most human rights activists consider an improvement to the UK law: following the high court’s recent decision to release four Rwandan men suspected of genocide who were held in the UK since 2006, because of fears that they might not get a fair trial, it may introduce an amendment that would allow courts to try cases where genocide had allegedly been committed elsewhere in the world. An announcement is expected imminently, though Ferstman fears that the changes will not include provisions to try cases of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Spain is the last European country that can hear cases where the victims are not Spanish nationals, or the perpetrator is not present in the country, but its law is also under review. “I intend to appeal to the Spanish foreign minister, the Spanish minister of defence and, if need be, the Spanish prime minister, who is a colleague of mine in the Socialist International, to override the decision,” said the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, on the day the Spanish court announced it would proceed with the al-Daraj case. On 19 May, the Spanish parliament passed a resolution calling on the government to modify its universal jurisdiction mechanisms, so that cases may only be pursued if they involve Spanish victims or if the accused is on Spanish soil.

Various NGOs, including the PCHR, are mobilising resistance to the change. Had Sourani been allowed to leave the Gaza Strip, he would have given the keynote speech at a conference entitled “In Defence of Universal Jurisdiction”, held in Madrid last week. “Entire peoples cannot be consigned to the rule of the jungle for the sake of political expediency,” he said in a speech delivered on his behalf. Ferstman acknowledges that it is unfair for certain countries to have to bear the brunt of universal jurisdiction cases, though she believes that the solution is for other countries to broaden their laws, rather than for Spain and Belgium to narrow theirs.

The PCHR is now planning to expand the al-Daraj suit to include other cases of crimes against humanity perpetrated during Operation Cast Lead, though Sourani would not comment on reports that the PCHR has assembled 936 cases, and is preparing to present evidence in 13. In any case, he insists that universal jurisdiction is not merely a Palestinian issue: when Israel kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, one of the principal architects of the Holocaust, and tried and executed him, it was acting according to the same principles. “Universal jurisdiction is an essential legal tool when national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute those accused of international crimes, and it provides a means of judicial remedy to victims throughout the world who suffer at the hands of oppressive regimes,” Sourani says. “It’s an essential component in upholding the rule of law.”

Edward Platt, a contributing writer of the NS, is completing a book about the West Bank city of Hebron. Newstatesman.com will link to a video of the Gaza hearings as soon as it is released

Related Content: Edward Platt Q&A

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

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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