Brown's new world order

The Inside Track with Jonathan Freedland plus Kev

The Inside Track with Jonathan Freedland plus Kevin Maguire, Martin Bright, Peter Wilby plus Tara Hamilton-Miller

It's only an academic question, but it has suddenly acquired more force, now that he's about to become prime minister. Could Gordon Brown have stopped the Iraq war?

Say Brown had joined Robin Cook in resigning on principle in March 2003. Tony Blair would have had only two options: to quit or to back down to save his government. He would have had to phone George W Bush and tell him that British troops would not, after all, be joining the US military in Operation Iraqi Freedom. We know from all the insider accounts that Bush was determined not to go to war alone. Indeed, he was prepared to go to inordinate lengths to keep his British ally on board. The president could not allow his war to seem like an act of American caprice, rather than the action of the international community. Bush would have had to delay the invasion, thereby giving the UN arms inspectors more time - perhaps enough to discover that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction after all. The chain of logic is clear. No Brown, no Britain. No Britain, no war.

Brown never did take that decisive step. He kept well out of what was the defining battle of the Blair years, declaring his view only during the 2005 general election campaign when asked point-blank if he would have handled Iraq the same way as Blair. "Yes," Brown said - and said no more.

From now on, enigmatic distance from key foreign policy issues will not be an option. Brown will have to lead and decide. There can be no delegation of international affairs, the way Blair delegated the economy to his Chancellor. Foreign policy is close to the essence of the prime minister's role. And, as predecessors from Churchill through Eden to Thatcher would surely testify, it's what can make or break you.

Brown will arrive at No 10 with only the sketchiest record in foreign affairs. That is partly thanks to the division of labour entailed by the Granita accord: Gordon got domestic, Tony got the rest of the world. If that was the bargain, Brown stuck to it faithfully, never once cutting across Blair's international turf. That's the charitable reading. Brown's critics have a harsher gloss. For them, his silence on Iraq was motivated by his Macavity-like habit, identified by the former mandarin Lord Turnbull, of vanishing at the first sign of trouble. Either way, Brown's experience in the diplomatic arena is thin. One über-Blairite warns that, when the first international crisis strikes, Brown is not going to know what has hit him. "If Iran invades southern Iraq, you can't commission Derek Wanless to do an 18-month review. You have to decide what to do now. Today."

And foreign policy is notoriously unpredictable. It is often barely a policy at all, less a predetermined strategy than a series of reactions to unforeseen events. After all, who knew in 1997 that Blair would emerge as a muscular neoconservative? Brown could end up surprising us just as much.

It is not only outsiders who are in the dark about his intentions. I asked one pro-Brown cabinet minister what his new boss planned to do internationally and received a candid reply: "I don't know." Incredibly, the man who will be prime minister next month has no full-time foreign policy adviser.

So we're left looking for clues, in his speeches and in his past record. One conclusion emerges straight away: when Brown looks for a way into an international problem, he heads for the door marked "Economics". The most obvious example is the Israel-Palestine conflict. In 2005, Brown deployed his trusted lieutenant Ed Balls, along with a Treasury official, Jon Cunliffe - whom some tip to move over to No 10 to advise on foreign affairs - to study, on behalf of the G8, prospects for "supporting the Middle East peace process through economic development". The idea was to replicate for Israelis and Palestinians what had worked so well in Northern Ireland: ensuring a flow of investment and jobs into a former war zone, giving the next generation a stake in peace. If today an 18-year-old Catholic lad in Belfast would rather get a job in some plush corporate HQ than become an IRA volunteer, why couldn't the same be true of young Palestinians of the future, choosing a career with an internet start-up over "martyrdom" with Hamas?

Something to lose

It's not just the Middle East conflict: ask Brown about Afghanistan, and his first answer is that the Afghans need an alternative crop to the poppy. He speaks about the need for investment in Iraq, too. Peace will hold, he believes, when people have something financial to lose. This economist's approach to foreign affairs might just be a function of Brown's CV: until now, economics was the only way he was allowed on to the world stage without treading on Blair's toes. But it goes deeper than that, revealing something of what Brown genuinely believes. There are flaws in the approach, to be sure. On Israel-Palestine, it's clear that investment will be vital after the two sides have signed a peace agreement. But the politics surely has to come first (just as investment in Ulster could come only after a meaningful ceasefire). To talk about industrial parks and apprenticeships now, while Hamas is firing rockets at Israel, Israel is shelling Gaza, and Fatah and Hamas are killing each other, risks looking idealistic, if not irrelevant.

There are other important pointers. Brown's championing of help for the developing world is well known, from his leading role in the campaign to cut debt to his invention of the International Finance Facility, designed to increase development aid with money from the bond markets. In both cases, Brown chivvied other governments to do their bit, even bringing a Republican US Treasury secretary, John Snow, on board for debt relief. That could be a precedent, a sign that coalition-building is not beyond him. It has also won him a strong reputation among NGOs and church groups.

What does this belief in development aid, typified by his tripling of the Department for International Development's budget, tell us about Brown? Admirers say it demonstrates his core belief that poverty is a scourge that governments have to tackle, at home and abroad. This, they say, is the legacy of his upbringing in the manse, the tangible evidence of his sotto voce brand of Christian socialism. Yet it would be a mistake to read Brown's belief in development as entirely abstract and ethical. Rather, it illuminates what might be a funda mentally different approach to the hard-headed, real-world questions thrown up by the "war on terror" - fundamentally different, that is, from the policy pursued by Blair.

If expressed in a soundbite, this would be "tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism". Brown is too canny to say anything that could be understood as justifying terrorist murder, but privately he argues that there are conditions in which violent extremism can flourish. These include states that break down through desperate poverty and disease.

Blair hangover

Of course, that doesn't explain the 19 hijackers of 9/11, most of them from comfortable Saudi backgrounds. But Brown is looking ahead to the failing states of Africa, worried that they could fall prey to al-Qaeda. In a speech in April to Labour Friends of Israel, he spoke at length about finding partners in Africa. His belief is that helping those countries - say, by funding education for those 120 million of the world's children who don't go to school - is both a moral good in itself and pragmatically smart, preventing jihadism winning more recruits. Brown talks often of the postwar Marshall Plan, which spent US money on European and other countries, in part to prevent them falling into the pro-Soviet column. He may well see aid to Africa the same way, with jihadism the new global menace to be defeated.

As for Iraq itself, a move is expected early, if only to draw a line under the hangover of the Blair era. The likeliest would be an accelerated troop withdrawal. But Brown would be wary of spinning that as a repudiation of Blair's war: after all, he knows that we know that he voted for it, and saw the raw anger for himself as an anti-war heckler was ejected from a hustings meeting he addressed on 20 May.

What's more, Brown still privately defends the decision to invade. He argues the case not on the grounds of weapons of mass destruction or Saddam being a vile dictator, but that Iraq's serial defiance of repeated UN resolutions could not go unpunished. Critics of the war will say that Saddam could hardly have been defying UN resolutions when, as we now know for sure, he had indeed disarmed.

Brown might want to couple any withdrawal from Iraq with another gesture, perhaps in the opposite direction. He might, for example, boost the British presence in Afghan istan, as if to allay any fears in Washington that Britain under him was going soft. But any desire to prove his hard power credentials is unlikely to include signing up for a military solution to one of the most pressing questions waiting for him in the Downing Street in-tray: Iran's apparent desire to acquire nuclear weapons. On 13 May, Brown said he did not anticipate any attack on Iran, because the process of multilateral engagement and negotiation is working. Indeed, he even spoke of a "new multilateralism", in which disputes will increasingly be settled through international institutions and dialogue. It may be too hopeful, but it suggests at least a different starting point from Blair, who sent British troops into combat five times in his first six years.

Then comes the crucial relationship, the one with the US. Of all Brown's diplomatic moves, this is the one that will be watched most intensely. There won't be the love-in that Blair struck up with Bush, if only because Brown knows how dearly that cost his predecessor, but it might be more complex than some hope. Brown is a known Americanophile - much more than was the French-speaking, Tuscany-visiting Blair. He reads American books and, famously, used to holiday annually in Cape Cod. His friendships range from Ted Kennedy to Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve. Brown will certainly be able to do business in Washington.

Aberrational fantasies

Brown also has the equipment to be more discerning than Blair ever was. Blair was powered by an undifferentiated belief that he had to be close to the White House, whoever was in it, whatever they did. Brown will be better able to distinguish enduring American interests from aberrational, neoconservative fantasies, siding with the US for the former and keeping his distance from the latter. He will be an enthusiastic, loyal ally of the US - but his support will not be unconditional. And if, once Bush goes in January 2009, the president is replaced by a Democrat, from the party with which Brown has good, personal links, so much the better.

On Europe, we have had several glimpses of the shape of things to come. Brown's impatience at finance ministers' meetings, and his derailment of British membership of the euro, suggest a sceptic. He loathes the Common Agricultural Policy, a piece of protectionism that cannot be defended in an era of global free trade. With the French and the Germans now talking of resuscitating the corpse of an EU constitution, reclothing it as a treaty, a collision seems likely. Brown would not want to rouse the ire of the Eurosceptic press by driving such a treaty through parliament; but nor could he risk submitting it to a referendum that he could lose. Expect some trademark footwork to get this booted into the long grass.

Where Brown would like to set a lead, rather than just react, is on the aid and trade agenda he has made his own (his only beef with the Make Poverty History campaign is that he thinks it should be pushing governments, including his, harder), and also on climate change. He wants to outman oeuvre the Tories on this territory not by matching David Cameron wind turbine for wind turbine, but by coming up with the kind of large-scale breakthrough that would make Cameron look like a lightweight. He speaks of plans for the reforestation of the Congo, of recasting the beleaguered World Bank as a new Environment Bank, of establishing a carbon market in London. This is the level he wants to operate on; he'll leave the organic broccoli to Cameron.

These, then, are the instincts that should steer Gordon Brown when he enters the international arena as leader of what is still one of the world's most powerful nations. How much will they determine what he does in office? The lesson of recent history is that they may be no guide at all. As Tony Blair discovered one September morning in 2001, everything can change when a single event comes out of a clear blue sky.

Jonathan Freedland writes for the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: The jailed state

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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