Luck and The Thing

As he bows out, Tony Blair may reflect that, helped by good fortune, he has left his country a more

Leaders are never easy to judge. Part of their job is to dazzle, disguise and deflect attention. Some who, close up, appear to command all around them, defining the age, come, in retrospect, to appear more like minnows, carried along by the currents of history. Others, more modest, in retrospect turn out to have laid the foundations for the future.

Tony Blair, more than most leaders, will confound the judges and juries for a long time to come. Few will doubt that he became an extraordinarily skilled politician. His was a bravura exposition of the craft. He effortlessly found the dead centre of public opinion. He articulated it with ease and showed again and again that the most important quality in any leader is resilience - the ability to weather shocks and disasters with a smile.

That resilience was helped by the fact that he achieved so many of his stated goals. He rebuilt the Labour Party as a winning machine. This was not something he cared about much for its own sake, but it was quite an achievement all the same (even if the tools that helped him succeed later left the party somewhat hollowed out, just as the ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher and the Saatchis hollowed out the Conservatives). He then made Labour a successful party of government, and the envy of others around the world. He turned around the long demoralisation and underinvestment in public services, and, incidentally, left public servants better paid than those in the private sector in every region of Britain bar one. He did much to alleviate the ugly poverty that was such a disastrous legacy of the 1980s. Although much poverty remains, most British cities have quite a different feel from the sullen fatalism of 20 years ago, while mass unemployment is now a dim memory. And he carried through bolder constitutional reform than any other prime minister of the modern era.

All these achievements were shared by his colleagues, especially Gordon Brown; future historians may bracket their administrations together. They are the achievements of a sane and decent social democratic administration, and they have left Britain, for most of its citizens, a more pleasant place to live.

Yet the achievements come with caveats. My guess is that many future critics could say that Blair's skills as a politician may have diminished his longer-term impact. The truly great leaders bring with them a grit, anger and a willingness to go against the grain that often make their careers turbulent roller-coasters. They become associated with a body of ideas that begins on the margins of their society but, at a certain point, through struggle, becomes the common sense. Just think of Churchill or Gladstone, de Gaulle or Gandhi. Blair was certainly not lacking in bravery. But his boldest risks were not taken in the name of a new idea: instead, most of them were guaranteed to have the centre ground of opinion on his side.

Two centuries ago, William Cobbett described the establishment in Britain as "The Thing": utterly convinced of its own rightness and utterly resistant to change. Today's establishment may appear more reasonable, but it is every bit as powerful. Its strength explains much about the virtues and vices of new Labour's time in government. Two centuries ago the centre of gravity of "The Thing" lay in the aristocracy and the leading factions of the main parties. Today, the aristocracy (and monarchy) are at its edge. Its centre of gravity lies in the media and business. It includes swaths of the senior civil service (though most are somewhat to its left), some of parliament, and the "international class" in every profession. It is firmly committed to market capitalism. It is internationalist, more pro-American than pro-European, and divided on questions of social order.

Labour's ability to court "The Thing", to convince it that the new government would not be a threat and might actually do some good, was the precursor to victory. It meant that Labour ruled from the centre in more senses than one, co- opting, flattering and recruiting an extraordinary army of business leaders, artists, writers and consultants to its cause. All of this was made easier because Blair embodied the liberal end of "The Thing". Unlike his predecessors, he didn't have to pretend to care about the views of business leaders and newspaper editors: much of the time, the respect was genuine.

Embracing the establishment

This alliance helped Labour to marginalise the Conservatives and appear, against all odds, as a natural party of government. Yet this alliance also explains Labour's most visible scandals - all of which blew up when the effort to embrace the new establishment overshot. From Bernie Ecclestone's £1m donation, through the twists and turns of David Blunkett's personal relationships, to the unfolding of the cash-for-peerages scandal, this has been the consistent leitmotif of the Blair years. It also explains much about the contours of new Labour's radicalism. Revising Clause Four or upping the ante on public service reform were bold gambits, but they were ones in which Blair could be confident that the vocal centre ground (or rather centre right) would be cheering from the sidelines. Even the gamble on Iraq fits the same pattern. By contrast, the gambles he eschewed - such as an earlier and bolder stance on climate change, or fuller constitutional reform, or joining the euro - were issues on which that conventional wisdom was either opposed or divided.

This highlights the other ambiguity of his legacy. More than any other prime minister in recent history, Blair has been lucky in domestic affairs: lucky in that he inherited an economy well placed for growth; lucky in that he didn't preside over a world recession; and lucky in that he came to power at a time when Britain was relatively free from titanic social struggles such as the miners' strike or the riots of the 1980s. He brilliantly made the most of this luck - and his record in domestic affairs will be seen as overwhelmingly positive, particularly for the many in society whose interests had almost disappeared from the radar of the elite during the 1980s and 1990s. This achievement is less visible to the opinion-forming middle class in London (few of whose friends have benefited from policies such as tax credits). But it is the main expla n ation for the continued strength of Labour's electoral support.

There have, of course, been mistakes. Management of the hefty investment in health was often flawed - but overpaid doctors are preferable to the collapsing services that we'd be seeing if there hadn't been such a huge infusion of funds. The encouragement of gambling and 24-hour drinking, and the failure to rein in an often malign media - the aristocrats of contemporary Britain - have left British culture harsher and nastier than it need be. But the big judgements in domestic affairs were broadly right.

Blair's skill, and luck, in domestic affairs contrast strikingly with a different position in foreign affairs, where he combined great energy with extraordinary bad luck. The man who wanted to make Britain a leader in Europe, and at ease in this new role, coincided in office with several of the weakest leaders the European Commission has ever had, and a period of unprecedented public disappointment in the European project. He was unlucky when it came to his fellow leaders. Some, such as Jacques Chirac and Silvio Berlusconi, were dire examples of the corrupt and incompetent (I suspect that future historians will marvel at Blair's poor taste when it came to holidays with the man with the bandanna).

He has been even more unlucky with America. A strong relationship with Bill Clinton gave way to an equally strong relationship with George W Bush. But where Clinton was cautious and measured, Bush and his neoconservative allies have turned out to be wild risk-takers, inspired by an extraordinarily unrealistic view of how the world works, and largely careless of their allies.

I'm one of those who think that there were good grounds for intervention in an Iraq that wanted the world to believe it had WMDs. But a narrow alliance with a flawed US leadership never looked like a wise bet, and the Iraq débâcle has inevitably overshadowed Blair's domestic successes. He is particularly unlucky in this regard because in the longer run his arguments for international intervention may come to be seen as prescient. In the late 1990s, he was the first major leader to understand that a new era of interdependence would spell the end of 19th-century ideas of national sovereignty.

The world's responsibility to protect citizens from their own states will be one of the defining ideas of the 21st century, as will the world's responsibility to look after its common resources. A more active and interventionist global community remains the only alternative to an ugly future in which deadly weapons circulate more freely and the world's common resources are plundered and run down. Blair's cheerleading, browbeating and coalition-building over Africa and climate change may not have achieved all he wanted, and many of his efforts were undermined by Bush's unwillingness to collaborate. But they look like heroic partial successes, in a different league from the paltry attempts of his peers.

For progressives, disappointment is tempered by the fact that Blair leaves behind a Britain that is no longer a Conser vative nation. Margaret Thatcher thought she had changed the country irreversibly, but she and her chorus line over estimated her success. They failed to see that "The Thing" saw little of the social costs that accompanied her rule and cared little about her most cherished goals, such as recreating Victorian values and the family.

The Britain of today is a fairly social-democratic country, in which ideas that once languished on the far left are mainstream, and in which David Cameron has no choice but to dress himself in liberal clothes. Even the policies that so many liberals dislike - the coercive activism on asylum and criminal justice - reflected a government that was in touch with public opinion and determined to block a Conservative revival.

An impressive balance

Blair made many compromises with "The Thing". But he also left it changed, slightly more decent, more responsible, less ashamed to care. Where some leaders become more brittle, he matured in office, becoming ever more interested in finding the right answers rather than the easy ones. It is a great paradox that a man accused of being all spin regularly upbraided civil servants and advisers for giving him expedient, incremental options rather than choices based on first principles.

This is where the historians will find it hard to decide. Was he a supremely competent pragmatist, brilliant at adapting to circumstance? Or was he a man of conviction, repeatedly willing to risk his own skin? Comments he made on Pontius Pilate in the mid-1990s are telling. "The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing to release him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate's advisers telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion." Blair then cites the Munich agreement of 1938, the Reform Act 1832 and the Corn Laws. "It is not always clear, even in retrospect, what is, in truth, right. Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient? Christianity is optimistic about the human condition, but not naive. It can identify what is good, but knows the capacity to do evil. I believe that the endless striving to do the one and avoid the other is the purpose of human existence. Through that comes progress."

It is far too soon to judge whether Tony Blair was on the side of progress, whether he struck the right balance between doing what is right and doing what is expedient. His most visible mistake - Iraq - arose from doing what he thought was right, not what was expedient. His greatest successes came about when a steady moral compass was combined with tactical agility and pragmatism. As always with history, how Blair is judged will depend on what happens next: whether Britain remains a centrist society; whether it continues what now looks like a sustained bounce back from its long decline in the 20th century; whether the Middle East descends further into chaos. My guess is that, in most things, he will be seen to have struck an impressive balance. But we should be wary of instant judgements. Only the future will make sense of the present and determine who looks wise and who looks foolish.

Geoff Mulgan, former head of policy in Downing Street, is director of the Young Foundation

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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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