Labour and the sick note

Peter Hain on the Tories' plan to force the unemployed into work will fail. Plus the

In opposition, the Tories show they know little about dealing with the problems of poverty and worklessness that they helped create when in power. Their response to Labour's radical new approach to welfare, with its emphasis on creating skills, has been to become cheerleaders for the reactionary, discredited Wisconsin model of welfare reform, with its emphasis on unemployment and forcing all who can work into jobs.

As Gordon Brown signalled in a major speech on 26 November, employability rather than unemployment is the new challenge.

Over the past decade, huge progress has been made in reversing the Conservative legacy of entrenched unemployment, child poverty and benefit dependency, which tripled the numbers moving to Incapacity Benefit and cemented the "sick note" in the foundations of the economy.

Yet, behind the headlines of Iain Duncan Smith's much-quoted "compassion" for the poor, the Tories still believe poverty and disadvantage are self-inflicted and that the way to get the most vulnerable across the high wire from benefits to work is to remove the safety net. That is why they have latched on to the sink-or-swim philosophy inherent in Wisconsin.

From the late 1980s onwards, as governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson (a Republican, and until recently a presidential hopeful) introduced a system of state-funded welfare. Over time, this meant abolishing "cash assistance" for anyone without children; lone mums with children as young as 13 weeks were forced into work; a cap was put on the benefits caseload regardless of demand; there were time limits on entitlement; and the whole system, including determining welfare eligibility, was privatised.

The result was that between 1994 and 2004, both absolute and relative child poverty increased, with disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic communities. Thousands of families with no work and no welfare were left to rely on charity. Benefit entitlement and distribution had to be taken back under state control when major contractors became plagued by fraud.

It is not surprising that the Tories would ignore the social impacts of such a policy. But behind the claims that Wisconsin reduced unemployment benefit claims to the state by 80 per cent is the fact that the private contractors used were incentivised to redirect people on to federally funded sickness benefits, which increased by roughly 40 per cent during the same period.

The actual reduction in benefit claimants was 15 per cent, a lower reduction than we have achieved in the UK in the past ten years. We have also proved that you can significantly decrease the numbers of families on benefits and still cut both absolute and relative child poverty. Indeed, that has been our motivation.

Although we have got 2.8 million more people into jobs and taken a million off benefits since 1997, there are still far too many on welfare. This is not good for them - people stuck on benefits suffer very high levels of illness and de pression, and their children underachieve. And it is certainly not good for the economy.

Our approach is driven by progressive values of full employment, opportunity for all and social justice. The old definition of full employment was measured in terms of low unemployment, which William Beveridge defined as a claimant count rate of 3 per cent or less. We have hit that every month since 2002. Our new approach defines it in terms of high employment; we aim for 80 per cent from the current 74 per cent.

To achieve that, we need to do still more to help those with disabilities, single parents and the long-term unemployed into sustainable and rewarding jobs: British benefit claimants becoming British workers in British jobs.

It means calling time on our "sick note" culture. Incapacity Benefit still accounts for more than half of the 4.5 million people of working age in Britain on an "out of work" benefit. In the past, they were in effect written off, more likely to die or retire than work again. Yet, with the right help, the majority could work, and the jobs are certainly out there for them among the 660,000 vacancies.

From next year I will replace Incapacity Benefit with a new Employment and Support Allowance. It will include a more rigorous medical assessment and place the emphasis on work, identifying what someone can do, not what they cannot. Roughly half of those who take the assessment are likely to be deemed able to work. We will require people to discuss with a personal adviser what they can do to increase their chances of getting a job when the time is right.

Rightward drift

It won't be easy: the longer people have been out of work, the more expensive, intensive and specialist is the help they need to get back into work and to make sure they can stay there. This requires considerable investment upfront and savings don't come back for some years.

Which is why David Cameron's October announcement that, at a stroke, £3bn can be found to fund tax cuts is fantasy. This is another black hole in Conservative spending plans. Pinning their colours to the mast of Wisconsin leaves the Tories' welfare policy in disarray, more slick spin than substance, and underlines their rightward drift on social policy.

Meanwhile, we have signed up more than 200 firms and organisations to our Local Employment Partnerships to help recruit the long-term disadvantaged jobless - youngsters, over-fifties, the disabled and lone parents. We will ensure they get the right training to be "job-ready". In return, employers will give them a fair shot at the job through a guaranteed interview or a work-trial.

There will be disabled people and lone parents for whom work is not an option, and I will ensure that they will be protected. But most lone parents want to work, not least because while on benefit their children are five times more likely to be in poverty, with a hugely increased risk of physical and mental illness.

Comprehensive and affordable childcare will be vital (increasingly there is provision in schools from breakfast to 6pm). We are encouraging employers to be more flexible and help employees balance work and family responsibilities. More than 80 per cent already do something towards this and our commitment to extend the right to request flexible working will boost this percentage further. We have also announced skills support for people on benefit, as there is evidence that welfare claimants frequently lack the skills to fill the jobs available.

There is a consistent vision of welfare running from Beveridge through Attlee to Gordon Brown: that a fair, prosperous and, above all, cohesive society can only be built on a system of social justice in which everyone who can work is expected to contribute to, and share in, national prosperity, while those who can't are protected.

There were times in the past century when these principles were neglected, with oppor tunities to work in effect denied to millions. Unconditional handouts, which made for a life of stunted ambition and thwarted opportunity, were a reality for too many. Neither should be acceptable to progressives in our pursuit of full employment and abolishing child poverty in our generation.

A new, progressive vision for our welfare system must be firm, fair and effective. The prescription from the right will once again be reactionary, stigmatising and self-defeating.

The dividing line between Labour and the Conservatives could not be starker.

Peter Hain is Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and for Wales

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 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

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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