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A state of collapse

Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to strengthen “co-operation between p

Since 2003, we have been told repeatedly that the principles of the "two-state solution" envisaged in the so-called road map will lead to a peaceful settlement in the Middle East; and since Barack Obama was inaugurated as US president ten months ago, we have been told that he is preparing to put them into practice. Yet far from leading to the fulfilment of the "two-state solution", Obama's presidency seems more likely to lead to its demise. The committee that awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize cited his "extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and co-operation between peoples", but his attempts to force the Israelis and Palestinians into meaningful negotiations have only revealed the differences between them, and how empty the concept of the two-state solution has become.

On 4 November, the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said what is supposedly the unsayable - that unless settlement expansion stops, Palestinians may have to abandon the goal of an independent state. Even the compliant Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, was forced to acknowledge that the Israelis had put him in an impossible position: already gravely weakened by his hastily retracted decision to help defer a vote at the UN on the Goldstone report on human rights abuses during Israel's offensive in Gaza last December and January, he admitted that he can no longer justify his conciliatory stance as a means of winning concessions. He has since announced he will not stand for office in elections to be held in the Palestinian territories in January.

Yet the deadlock had been apparent for some time. The speech made by Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, on 14 June, in which he endorsed for the first time the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, was reported as a "historic" breakthrough, but it fell far short of acknowledging Israel's internationally recognised obligations. The demilitarised entity that he envisaged in the West Bank barely merited being called a "state". Meanwhile, Hamas has attached similarly sweeping provisos to the idea of establishing a state within pre-1967 borders. "Hamas struggles for an end to occupation and for the restoration of our people's rights, including their right to return home," Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader, said in an interview in the New Statesman two months ago.

There are now more than four million descendants of the Palestinians made homeless refugees by the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. Some would say their right to return is symbolic, others that it is a matter of personal conscience which no politician can barter away. Yet, given that its implementation in even a partial way would mean the end of Israel in its current form, insisting on such a condition is nothing more than a restatement of the cause of the original conflict. As Hussein Agha and Robert Malley put it in the New York Times earlier this year, "Acceptance of the two-state solution signals continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle by other means".

Israel's determination to resist meaningful compromises is apparent in the way it confronted the Obama administration over the "natural growth" of settlements. Israel maintains that people who are born in a settlement in the occupied territories should be allowed to live there when they grow up, and that the settlements should be allowed to expand “naturally" to accommodate them. It is an absurd argument: research suggests that "natural growth" includes significant numbers of incomers with no previous connections to the settlements. And besides, it does not address the existence of the settlements themselves. Yet it has served Israel's purpose: "It has provided a smokescreen behind which Israel can pursue more significant and urgent construction that, when completed, will truly render the occupation irreversible," says Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

The Jerusalem Light Rail, or JLR, is a case in point. The construction of Line 1, which is intended to run from the settlement-suburb of Pisgat Ze'ev in the north-east of the city to Mount Herzl in the west, is three years behind schedule, but in the past month or so the tracks have begun to climb the hill past the medieval walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. What used to be a four-lane road has been reduced to two, with inevitable effects.

One Sunday evening last month, I took a taxi back to my hotel in east Jerusalem. When we reached the north-west corner of the Old City, my driver gestured at the cars queuing down the hill towards Damascus Gate, just beyond the commonly accepted divide with the Palestinian quarters. He believed the JLR would not persuade drivers to leave their cars at home - in the long run, he said, it would generate more congestion and pollution. Others believe it will have even more profound implications for Jerusalem's future: the scheme's planners say it is intended to fulfil the vision of the father of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, of a city with "modern neighbourhoods with electric lines" and "tree-lined boulevards", but critics say it will fulfil another element of Herzl's Eurocentric vision. "The true objective," says Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, "is to entrench irreversibly the 'Judaisation' of Jerusalem, and perpetuate its current reality as a unified city with a predominantly Jewish population under Israeli control." The international community does not recognise Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem after the Six Day War of 1967, which means that settlements such as Pisgat Ze'ev are built on illegally occupied land, yet the JLR will bind them closer to the Jewish districts in the western half of Jerusalem, and make the task of partitioning the city even harder.

Other events in the summer, such as the eviction of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, and a series of announcements about planned building projects, provide further evidence of Israel's intention to preclude meaningful negotiations about the city's future. In September, it said it was beginning work on 500 new apartments in Pisgat Ze'ev, and in August it vowed to build on the important “E-1" site, which lies between Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, and drives a wedge through the heart of the West Bank.

Elsewhere, Israel has been building bypasses in an attempt to redraw the map of the West Bank, continuing the construction of the hated "separation fence" and forcing thousands of people off their land by appropriating water required for irrigation. As Halper sees it, these actions were Israel's way of telling Obama to "go to hell" while he was preparing a peace plan to present at a UN summit in September.

Two states or one?

In the event, Obama failed to produce a plan of any kind. It was all that he could do to force Netanyahu and Abbas to shake hands in public. Abbas had always insisted that the resumption of negotiations would be dependent on a complete freeze in settlement building, and his position was officially endorsed by the US - in May, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, said that the US "wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions". And yet, at the end of last month, she made the extraordinary statement that Netanyahu had made "unprecedented" concessions on "the specifics of a restraint on the policy of settlements".

It isn't clear whether this pronouncement was a consequence of the undiminished influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a reflection of Obama's wavering will in the face of Israeli intransigence, or evidence of hidden tensions within the US administration, yet Clinton's distorted language suggests that even she was embarrassed to be mouthing such nonsense: the only "restraint" that Netanyahu has offered is to restrict settlement construction in the West Bank to 3,000 homes that have been approved already by the Israeli authorities, and he has not considered any halt to construction in east Jerusalem.

It was Clinton's announcement that prompt­ed Erekat to break diplomatic cover. He said that Netanyahu had issued the Palestinians with an absurd list of preconditions to restarting talks, insisting, among other things, that Jerusalem would remain the "eternal and united capital of Israel", that the issue of refugees would not be discussed, and that Israel would not withdraw to the pre-1967 borders. "This is dictation, and not negotiations," Erekat said.

Such tactics serve only to entrench the paradox at the heart of Israeli policy: by humiliating its so-called "partners for peace" in the Palestinian Authority, and hastening the demise of the two-state solution, it seems determined to bring about what the majority of its citizens fear most - the prospect of Jewish Israelis becoming a minority in a single, bi-national state. Barghouti opposes the colonisation of Palestinian land represented by projects such as the JLR, yet he is glad that it is rendering the two-state solution practically impossible. "For over 25 years, I've supported the unitary, secular, democratic state solution for historic Palestine, because I regard it as the most ethical solution to all involved. It reconciles the inalienable rights of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs with the acquired rights of Jewish Israelis," he says.

It may not be as simple as that. Israel's ultra-nationalists are preparing for the day when the Jews find themselves in a minority in historic Palestine by proposing legislation designed to shore up the Zionist vision of a Jewish state. The Netanyahu government has adopted a bill brought forward by the radical ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party of the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, which sanctions three years' imprisonment for anyone who mourns the nakba - the Palestinian name for the events of 1947-48, when hundreds of thousands of Arabs were driven from their homes, and the state of Israel was created. And earlier this year, the Israeli Knesset passed the preliminary reading of another bill proposed by Yisrael Beiteinu: an amendment to the citizenship law that includes an oath of allegiance and stipulates a year's imprisonment for anyone who publishes a "call that negates the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state".

Neither Israel's 1.5 million Arab citizens nor the even greater number of Palestinians in the West Bank who would become part of a putative "Greater Israel" could be expected to recognise the contradictory notion of a "Jewish and democratic" state. If the day came when a Jewish minority found itself presiding over an Arab majority, then the focus of both the domestic struggle and the diplomatic and international effort would have to change: instead of attempting to create two separate states, the emphasis would be on securing equal rights for all the new country's citizens. It is a situation with an obvious precedent: Israel is already accused of running an apartheid regime in the West Bank, and the BDS movement targeting Israel for boycott, divestment and sanctions is beginning to assume the dimensions of the one directed against South Africa in the 1980s.

The sanction solution

Some maintain that targeting Israel for sanctions has grave consequences for the fragile Palestinian economy, though its proponents say it is the only effective way to force Israel to comply with international law. Either way, the movement is gathering pace. In the past few months, it has scored some notable successes, including one in the fight against the JLR. The French company Veolia, which owns 5 per cent of the City Pass consortium contracted to operate the line after completion, has come under concerted pressure to withdraw from the project. In 2006, the Dutch ASN bank broke off financial relations with it because of its involvement in JLR, and earlier this year a French court heard a lawsuit by a pro-Palestinian group demanding the project be halted on the grounds that it violates international law. Barghouti claims Veolia has lost billion-dollar contracts around the world as a result, and in September the company said it intends to sell its stake in City Pass to the Israeli Dan Bus Company.

If, or when, it does so, the focus of the campaign will switch to another part of the consortium - the French power generation and urban transport group Alstom. "In the coming weeks, Alstom will feel the heat, particularly in Arab states where it has won lucrative contracts," says Barghouti. The BDS campaign also claims credit for precipitating the financial collapse of one of Israel's most high-profile businessmen, Lev Leviev, whose company, Africa-Israel, built settlements in the West Bank.

Yet it was the British TUC's decision in September to mount a partial boycott of Israeli goods that convinced Barghouti the Palestinians' "South African movement" had arrived: he believes the endorsement of BDS "will reverberate across the world". It may even prove more significant than the best efforts of the Nobel peace laureate and his team of negotiators.

Edward Platt is a contributing writer of the New Statesman. He is writing a book about the West Bank city of Hebron.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

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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