Fundamental flaw of the Blair project

By flirting with the anti-liberal prejudices of the right-wing media, new Labour has alienated its c

Whether on Iraq, health reorganisation, schools reform or civil liberties, the relationship between Labour and millions of progressive voters has become sour and distrustful. It flourished in the mid-1990s and underpinned our landslide victory in 1997. Now fractured, it puts the party's chances of a historic fourth-term victory at risk, allowing the Conservatives back into power.

George Bush's two terms in the White House graphically demonstrate the danger. The Tories, fronted by a fresh face and projected with slick spin, promise a break with a deeply unpopular party's nasty past. Ominous echoes of the "compassionate conservative" governor of Texas as he campaigned for the US presidency seven years ago.

But scaring progressive voters with the image of David Cameron crossing the threshold of No 10 won't win Labour the next election. Instead, we need to understand why it is that - despite all the achievements of the past ten years - so many of those who enthusiastically supported us in 1997 are now so deeply hostile.

The progressive coalition that Labour so successfully assembled in 1997 has splintered because we have been careless, indifferent and, at times, needlessly offensive to the concerns and values of too many of our natural supporters.

This has not simply been a sin of omission. Instead, it has appeared a conscious strategy. Too often, the credo has been that winning the centre ground - itself unquestionably vital for electoral success - is, in part, achieved by Labour defining itself against the values of progressive Britain. This has always been a false choice. We proved in 1997 that it is possible to win both Middle Britain marginals and Labour heartlands; indeed, since then, we have lost support in both simultaneously.

The chase for headlines in the right-wing press is based on a fundamentally flawed calculation: that progressives have nowhere else to go but to vote Labour. This is a dangerous assumption. In 2001, some of those who had voted Labour four years earlier simply stayed at home. Only Tory weakness and a very low turnout prevented serious electoral damage.

In 2005, however, substantial defections from Labour to the Liberal Democrats not only produced losses from Cambridge to Cardiff Central, they also handed the Conservatives - often without raising their own vote at all - more than 30 seats. Labour ended up with a shaky win and a vote, at just 36 per cent, lower than when we lost to Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

What credit?

If this strategy was electorally risky in the face of a string of overtly right-wing and weak Tory leaders, it could be near-suicidal when we are up against today's reinvigorated Con servatives. Cameron's sidling up to progressive causes such as civil liberties, inequality and climate change is entirely synthetic, all spin and no substance. Nevertheless, it is cunningly calculated to make the Tories appear a whole lot less threatening - if not necessarily attractive - to large numbers of those who were willing to rally around Labour in 1997 in order to evict John Major from No 10. They might well not vote Tory, but equally they might not vote at all if the prospect of a Cameron victory doesn't overly bother them.

But flirting with the anti-liberal prejudices of the right-wing media is counterproductive in another way. When some at the top of the party have seemed at best sullen and at worst downright hostile to our progressive record, what chance do we have of asking people on the left to give us any credit for it?

The Human Rights Act is a case in point. Sometimes we have seemed more concerned with colluding in fantasies and fallacies than with robustly and proudly defending legislation that embodies our commitment to human rights. This has left the door open to Tory right-wing attacks; a stark contrast with other parts of our record that have been solidly defended, such as the minimum wage, civil partnerships, or the creation of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and London, all of which the Conservatives have been forced to accept.

On the fight against terrorism, everyone understands that, after 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London, we need to have a serious debate about the balance between liberty and security. But we have contrived, through government rhetoric and spin, to appear casual about, or even indifferent to, civil liberties, which itself undermines the fight against terrorism. We may not have encountered so much hostility and difficulty with our anti-terrorism laws if we had led the debate in a manner that suggested we cared both about the security of the country and the civil liberties of those who live in it, rather than appearing to suggest that the former can be achieved only by sacrificing the latter.

Gordon Brown's recent suggestion that any further anti-terrorism powers must be accompanied by stronger judicial and parliamentary oversight offers the prospect of a welcome new approach.

The war in Iraq has, of course, also played a significant part in fracturing the progressive coalition. Like all my fellow deputy leadership candidates, I voted for the war. It does nothing to rebuild trust in politicians if, at the moment when it would be most politically expedient to do so, I followed the example of two of my colleagues, renounced my vote and tried to write myself out of the decision. I know only too well the damage to Labour and the anger the war has caused, not only on the doorstep, but over family dinners and in conversations with long-time friends who have felt unable to remain in the party.

Rather than trying to wriggle out of personal responsibility for our decision, I think people should ask that those they entrust to make decisions learn from those decisions. The lessons of Iraq are that military power alone is no substitute for winning the battle of hearts and minds, and that we need to reform and strengthen the capacity of the UN, Europe and other multilateral bodies, including the Arab League.

It is also vital that the left and wider progressive opinion does not, because of Iraq, abandon the internationalism that first brought me from the struggle against apartheid into the Labour Party. An isolationist foreign policy, usually favoured by the right, would not have saved the people of Sierra Leone from savage butchery, nor Kosovans from genocide. The ongoing suffering of the peoples of Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur underlines why international intervention to protect democracy and human rights must always be high on the left's agenda. The failure to resolve the continuing, and often bloody, impasse between Israelis and Palestinians remains the principal failure of global diplomacy.

Unguarded flank

Forging a progressive internationalist foreign policy built on these lessons - coupled with a renewed drive to promote global social justice and tackle climate change - is the way to win back Labour support among progressive voters, by renewing confidence that we share the same values.

Domestically, we must prioritise tackling inequality. Top of our agenda must be the lack of affordable housing for rent and purchase, the need to ensure the proper enforcement of employment rights in the disturbing twilight world of agency, temporary and subcontract work, and a major push for free universal childcare. Coupled with greater individual empowerment, strengthened local government and finishing the job of democratic renewal - redistributing not just wealth, but also power - the drive against inequality should be the golden thread that runs through our entire agenda.

We leave our progressive flank unguarded at our peril. How on earth did we allow Cameron to steal a march on green issues, given the government's international and European leadership on climate change? The truth is that we failed for too long to prioritise the green agenda as the core Labour issue it so palpably is. If the Tories can attempt to steal progressive voters from us when they have barely any green policies, no record of prior commitment and, until very recently, zero credibility, then no territory is safe. We must challenge them with a red-green agenda that combines social justice and environmental protection, tackling climate change but ensuring that the responsibility for doing so is fairly shared.

However expedient their motives, the Conservatives have finally realised the electoral importance of Britain's progressive majority. A decade ago, so did we. It's now high time we did again. And that means we need to stop insulting it.

Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales, is a candidate for Labour's deputy leadership

His manifesto is available at http://www.Hain4Labour.org

Peter Hain is a former Labour cabinet minister and was MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015 before joining the House of Lords.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

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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