The plot against liberal America

In its pursuit of a free-market utopia, the US right tried to crush unions, the legal profession and

The most cherished dream of conservative Washington is that liberalism can somehow be defeated, finally and irreversibly, in the way that armies are beaten and pests are exterminated. Electoral victories by Republicans are just part of the story. The larger vision is of a future in which liberalism is physically barred from the control room - of an "end of history" in which taxes and onerous regulation will never be allowed to threaten the fortunes private individuals make for themselves. This is the longing behind the former White House aide Karl Rove's talk of "permanent majority" and, 20 years previously, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's declaration to the Republican convention that it's "the job of all revolutions to make permanent their gains".

When I first moved to contemplate this peculiar utopian vision, I was struck by its apparent futility. What I did not understand was that beating liberal ideas was not the goal. The Washington conservatives aim to make liberalism irrelevant not by debating, but by erasing it. Building a majority coalition has always been a part of the programme, and conservatives have enjoyed remarkable success at it for more than 30 years. But winning elections was not a bid for permanence by itself. It was only a means.

The end was capturing the state, and using it to destroy liberalism as a practical alternative. The pattern was set by Margaret Thatcher, who used state power of the heaviest-handed sort to implant permanently the anti-state ideology.

"Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul," she said, echoing Stalin. In the 34 years before she became prime minister, Britain rode a see-saw of nationalisation, privatisation and renationalisation; Thatcher set out to end the game for good. Her plan for privatising council housing was designed not only to enthrone the market, but to encourage an ownership mentality and "change the soul" of an entire class of voters. When she sold off nationally owned industries, she took steps to ensure that workers received shares at below-market rates, leading hopefully to the same soul transformation. Her brutal suppression of the miners' strike in 1984 showed what now awaited those who resisted the new order. As a Business Week reporter summarised it in 1987: "She sees her mission as nothing less than eradicating Labour Party socialism as a political alternative."

In their own pursuit of the free-market utopia, America's right-wingers did not have as far to travel as their British cousins, and they have never needed to use their state power so ruthlessly. But the pattern is the same: scatter the left's constituencies, hack open the liberal state and reward friendly businesses with the loot.

Grover Norquist, one of the most influential conservatives in Washington and the "field marshal of the Bush plan", according to the Nation magazine, has been most blunt about using the power of the state "to crush the structures of the left". He has outlined the plan countless times in countless venues: the liberal movement is supported by a number of "pillars", each of which can be toppled by conservatives when in power. Among Norquist's suggestions has been the undermining of defence lawyers - who in the US give millions of dollars to liberal causes - with measures "potentially costing [them] billions of dollars of lost income". Conservatives could also "crush labour unions as a political entity" by forcing unions to get annual written approval from every member before spending union funds on political activities. His coup de grâce is that the Democratic Party in its entirety would become "a dead man walking" with the privatisation of social security.

Much of this programme has already been accomplished, if not on the precise terms Norquist suggested. The shimmering dream of privatising social security, though, remains the great unreachable right-wing prize, and the right persists in the campaign, regardless of the measure's unpopularity or the number of political careers it costs. President Bush announced privatisation to be his top priority on the day after his re-election in 2004, although he had not emphasised this issue during the campaign. He proceeded to chase it deep into the land of political unpopularity, a region from which he never really returned.

He did this because the potential rewards of privatising social security justify any political cost. At one stroke, it would both de-fund the operations of government and utterly reconfigure the way Americans interact with the state. It would be irreversible, too; the "transition costs" in any scheme to convert social security are so vast that no country can consider incurring them twice. Once the deal has been done and the trillions of dollars that pass through social security have been diverted from the US Treasury to stocks in private companies, the effects would be locked in for good. First, there would be an immediate flood of money into Wall Street; second, there would be an equivalent flow of money out of government accounts, immediately propelling the federal deficit up into the stratosphere and de-funding a huge part of the federal activity.

Business elites

The overall effect for the nation's politics would be to elevate for ever the rationale of the financial markets over such vague liberalisms as "the common good" and "the public interest". The practical results of such a titanic redirection of the state are easy to predict, given the persistent political demands of Wall Street: low wage growth, even weaker labour organisations, a free hand for management in downsizing, in polluting, and so on.

The longing for permanent victory over liberalism is not unique to the west. In country after country, business elites have come up with ingenious ways to limit the public's political choices. One of the most effective of these has been massive public debt. Naomi Klein has pointed out, in case after case, that the burden of debt has forced democratic countries to accept a laissez-faire system that they find deeply distasteful. Regardless of who borrowed the money, these debts must be repaid - and repaying them, in turn, means that a nation must agree to restructure its economy the way bankers bid: by deregulating, privatising and cutting spending.

Republicans have ridden to power again and again promising balanced budgets - government debt was "mortgaging our future", Ronald Reagan admonished in his inaugural address - but once in office they proceed, with a combination of tax cuts and spending increases, to inflate the federal deficit to levels far beyond those reached by their supposedly open-handed liberal rivals. The formal justification is one of the all-time great hoaxes. By cutting taxes, it is said, you will unleash such economic growth that federal revenues will actually increase, so all the additional government spending will be paid for.

Even the theory's proponents don't really believe it. David Stockman, the libertarian budget director of the first Reagan administration, did the maths in 1980 and realised it would not rescue the government; it would wreck the government. This is the point where most people would walk away. Instead, Stockman decided it had medicinal value. He realised that with their government brought to the brink of fiscal collapse, the liberals would either have to acquiesce in the reconfiguration of the state or else see the country destroyed. Stockman was candid about this: the left would "have to dismantle [the government's] bloated, wasteful, and unjust spending enterprises - or risk national ruin".

This is government-by-sabotage: deficits were a way to smash a liberal state. The Reagan deficits did precisely this. When Reagan took over in 1981, he inherited an annual deficit of $59bn and a national debt of $914bn; by the time he and his successor George Bush had finished their work, they had quintupled the deficit and pumped the debt up to more than $3trn. Bill Clinton called the deficit "Stockman's Revenge" - and it domin ated all other topics within his administration's economic teams. With the chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan himself speaking of "financial catastrophe" unless steps were taken to control Reagan's deficit, Clinton was soon a convert. He got tough with the federal workforce.

So-called virtues

George W Bush proceeded to plunge the budget into deficit again. Indeed, after seeing how the Reagan deficit had forced Clinton's hand, it would have been foolish for a conservative not to spend his way back into the hole as rapidly as possible. "It's perfectly fine for them to waste money," says Robert Reich, a former labour secretary to Bill Clinton, summarising the conservative viewpoint. "If the public thinks government is wasteful, that's fine. That reduces public faith in government, which is precisely what the Republicans want."

In 1964, the political theorist James Burnham diagnosed liberalism as "the ideology of western suicide". What Burnham meant by this was that liberalism's so-called virtues - its openness and its insistence on equal rights for everyone - made it vulnerable to any party that refuses to play by the rules. The "suicide" that all of this was meant to describe was liberalism's inevitable destruction at the hands of communism, a movement in whose ranks Burnham had once marched himself. But his theory seems more accurately to describe the stratagems of its fans on the American right. And the correct term for the disasters that have disabled the liberal state is not suicide, but vandalism. Loot the Treasury, dynamite the dam, take a crowbar to the monument and throw a wrench into the gears. Slam the locomotive into reverse, toss something heavy on the throttle, and jump for it.

Mainstream American political commentary customarily assumes that the two political parties do whatever they do as mirror images of each other; that if one is guilty of some misstep, the other is equally culpable. But there is no symmetry. Liberalism, as we know it, arose out of a compromise between left-wing social movements and business interests. It depends on the efficient functioning of certain organs of the state; it does not call for all-out war on private industry.

Conservatism, on the other hand, speaks not of compromise, but of removing its adversaries from the field altogether. While no one dreams of sawing off those branches of the state that protect conservatism's constituents - the military, the police, legal privileges granted to corporations - conservatives openly fantasise about doing away with the bits of "big government" that serve liberal ends. While de-funding the left is the north star of the conservative project, there is no comparable campaign to "de-fund the right"; indeed, it would be difficult to imagine one.

"Over the past 30 years, American politics has become more money-centred at exactly the same time that American society has grown more unequal," the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have written. The resources and organisational heft of the well-off and hyper-conservative have exploded. But the org anisational resources of middle-income Amer icans . . . have atrophied. The resulting inequality has greatly benefited the Republican Party while drawing it closer to its most affluent and extreme supporters."

In this sense, conservative Washington is a botch that keeps on working, constructing an imbalance that will tilt our politics rightward for years, a plutocracy that will stand, regardless of who wins the next few elections. And as American inequality widens, the clout of money will only grow more powerful.

As I write this, the lobbyist-fuelled conservative boom of the past ten years is being supplanted by a distinct conservative bust: like the real-estate speculators who are dumping properties all over the country, conservative senators and representatives are heading for the revolving door in record numbers.

Plutocracy

The Democrats who have taken their place are an improvement, certainly, but for the party's more entrepreneurial leaders electoral success in 2006 was merely an opportunity to accelerate their own courtship of Washington's lobbyists, think-tanks and pressure groups staked out on K Street. Democratic leaders have proved themselves the Republicans' equals in circumvention of campaign finance laws.

Throwing the rascals out is no longer enough. The problem is structural; it is inscribed on the map; it glows from the illuminated logos on the contractors' office buildings; it is built into the systems of governance themselves. A friend of mine summarised this concisely as we were lunching in one of those restaurants where the suits and the soldiers get together. Sweeping his hand so as to take in our fellow diners and all the contractors' offices beyond, he said, "So you think all of this is just going to go away if Obama gets in?" This whole economy, all these profits?

He's right, of course; maybe even righter than he realised. It would be nice if electing Democrats was all that was required to resuscitate the America that the right flattened, but it will take far more than that. A century ago, an epidemic of public theft persisted, despite a long string of reformers in the White House, Republicans and Democrats, each promising to clean the place up. Nothing worked, and for this simple reason: democracy cannot work when wealth is distributed as lopsidedly as theirs was-and as ours is. The inevitable consequence of plutocracy, then and now, is bought government.

This is an edited extract from Thomas Frank's "The Wrecking Crew", published this month by Harvill Secker (£14.99)

© Thomas Frank, 2008

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

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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