Europe is not just another geopolitical power block. Photo: Getty
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Slavoj Žižek: Only a radicalised left can save Europe

Austerity is not “too radical”, as some leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial, an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis, says Slavoj Žižek.

After the electoral triumph of the anti-immigrant eurosceptic parties in countries like France and UK, many liberals expressed their shock and worry. However, there was something of a feigned naivety in their surprise and indignation, in their wonder at how the victory of the populist right was possible. What one should wonder about is why it took the anti-immigrant right so long to make a decisive breakthrough.

When Jean-Marie Le Pen made a tasteless gas-chamber joke about a French Jewish pop singer – “we’ll do an oven load next time” (Le Pen denies this was intended to be anti-Semitic) – his daughter Marine Le Pen publicly criticised him, thereby promoting her image as her father’s human face. It is irrelevant if this family conflict is staged or real – the oscillation between the two faces, the brutal one and the civilised one, is what defines today’s populist right. Beneath the civilised public face, there lurks its obscene, brutal underside, and the difference concerns only the degree to which this underside is openly admitted. Even if this obscene underside remains totally out of sight, even if it there are no slips in which it breaks through, it is there as a silent presupposition, as an invisible point of reference. Without her father’s spectre, Marine Le Pen doesn’t exist.

There is no surprise in Le Pen’s message: the usual anti-elitist working class patriotism which targets trans-national financial powers and the alienated Bruxelles bureaucracy. And, effectively, Le Pen forms a clear contrast to the sterile European technocrats: addressing the worries of ordinary people, she brings passion back to politics. Even some disoriented leftists succumbed to the temptation to defend her: she rejects the non-elected Bruxelles financial technocrats who brutally enforce the interest of the international financial capital, prohibiting individual states prioritising the welfare of their own population; she thus advocates a politics that would be in contact with worries and cares of the ordinary working people – her party’s fascist outbursts are a thing of the past. . . What unites Le Pen and the European leftists who sympathise with her is their shared rejection of a strong Europe, and the return to the full sovereignty of nation states.

The problem with this shared rejection is that, as they say in a joke, Le Pen is not looking for the causes of the distresses in the dark corner where they really are, but under the light, because one sees better there. It begins with the right premise: the failure of the austerity politics practised by the Bruxelles experts. When the Romanian leftist writer Panait Istrati visited Soviet Union in the 1930s, the time of the big purges and show trials, a Soviet apologist tried to convince him of the need for violence against enemies, evoking the proverb “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, to which Istrati tersely replied: “All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelette of yours?” We should say the same about the austerity measures imposed by the Bruxelles technocrats: “OK, you are breaking our eggs all around Europe, but where’s the omelette you are promising us?”

The least one can say is that the economic crisis of 2008 offers large proofs of how is it not the people but these experts themselves who, in their large majority, don’t know what they are doing. In western Europe, we are effectively witnessing a growing inability of the ruling elite – they know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with the Greek crisis: putting pressure on Greece to repay debts, but at the same time ruining its economy through imposed austerity measures and thereby making it sure the Greek debt will never be repaid. At the end of December 2012, the IMF itself released research showing that the economic damage from aggressive austerity measures may be as much as three times larger than previously assumed, thereby cancelling its own advice on austerity in the eurozone crisis. Now, the IMF admits that forcing Greece and other debt-burdened countries to reduce their deficits too quickly would be counterproductive… now, after hundreds of thousands of job have been lost because of such “miscalculations”.

It is as if the providers and caretakers of debt accuse the indebted countries of not feeling enough guilt – they are accused of feeling innocent. Recall the ongoing EU pressure on Greece to implement austerity measures – this pressure fits perfectly what psychoanalysis calls superego. Superego is not an ethical agency proper, but a sadistic agent which bombards the subject with impossible demands, obscenely enjoying the subject’s failure to comply with them; the paradox of the superego is that, as Freud saw it clearly, the more we obey its demands, the more we feel guilty. Imagine a vicious teacher who gives his pupils impossible tasks, and then sadistically jeers when he sees their anxiety and panic. This is what is so terribly wrong with the EU’s demands andcommands: they don’t even give a chance to Greece, because Greek failure is part of the game.

Therein resides the true message of the “irrational” popular protests all around Europe: the protesters know very well what they don’t know, they don’t pretend to have fast and easy answers, but what their instinct is telling them is nonetheless true – that those in power also don’t know it. In Europe today, the blind are leading the blind. Austerity politics is not really science, not even in a minimal sense; it is much closer to a contemporary form of superstition – a kind of gut reaction to an impenetrable complex situation, a blind common sense reaction of “things went wrong, we are somehow guilty, we have to pay the price and suffers, so let’s do something that hurts and spend less…”. Austerity is not “too radical”, as some leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial, an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis.

However, can the idea of a united Europe be reduced to the reign of the Bruxelles technocrats? The proof that this is not the case is that the US and Israel, two exemplary nation states obsessed with their sovereignty, at some deep and often obfuscated level perceive European Union as the enemy. This perception, kept under control in the public political discourse, explodes in its underground obscene double, the extreme right Christian fundamentalist political vision with its obsessive fear of the New World Order (Obama is in secret collusion with the United Nations, international forces will intervene in the US and put in concentration camps all true American patriots – a couple of years ago, there were already rumors that Latino American troupes are already in the Midwest planes, building concentration camps. . .). This vision is deployed in hard-line Christian fundamentalism, exemplarily in the works of Tim LaHaye et consortes – the title of one of LaHaye’s novels points in this direction: The Europa Conspiracy. The true enemy of the US are not Muslim terrorists, they are merely puppets secretly manipulated by the European secularists, the true forces of the anti-Christ who want to weaken the US and establish the New World Order under the domination of the United Nations… In a way, they are right in this perception: Europe is not just another geopolitical power block, but a global vision which is ultimately incompatible with nation-states, a vision of a transnational order that guarantees certain rights (welfare, freedom, etc). This dimension of the EU provides the key to the so-called European “weakness”: there is a surprising correlation between European unification and its loss of global military-political power.

So what is wrong with the Bruxelles technocrats? Not only their measures, their false expertise, but even more their modus operandi. The basic mode of politics today is a depoliticised expert administration and coordination of interests. The only way to introduce passion into this field, to actively mobilise people, is through fear: fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive state itself, with its burden of high taxation, fear of ecological catastrophe, fear of harassment (Political Correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear). Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by populist racism; however, a closer look soon reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect for (ethnic, religious, sexual) others shares a basic premise with anti-immigrants: the fear of others clearly discernible in the liberals’ obsession with harassment. The other is fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this other is not really other. . .

No wonder the topic of “toxic subjects” is gaining ground recently. While this notion originates from popular psychology that warns us against the emotional vampires who prey on us out there, this topic is expanding much further than immediate interpersonal relations: the predicate “toxic” covers a series properties which belong to totally different levels (natural, cultural, psychological, political). A “toxic subject” can be an immigrant with a deadly disease who should be quarantined; a terrorist whose deadly plans should be prevented and who belongs to Guantanamo, the empty zone exempted from the rule of law; a fundamentalist ideologue who should be silenced because he is spreading hatred; a parent, teacher or priest who abuses and corrupts children. What is toxic is ultimately the foreign neighbour as such, so that the ultimate aim of all rules governing interpersonal relations is to quarantine or at least neutralise and contain this toxic dimension.

On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. . . And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of the other deprived of its otherness – the decaffeinated other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight. . .

Is this detoxification of the immigrant Other not the main point of Nigel Farage’s Ukip programme? Farage repeatedly emphasises that he is not against the presence of foreign workers in the UK, that he highly appreciates the hard-working Poles and their contribution to the British economy. When he was asked on LBC about why he said that people wouldn't like to have Romanians living in the appartment next to their own, the contrast was immediately drawn with German neighbours – what worried him, he said, were people with criminal records being allowed to enter the UK. This is the stance of the “civilised” anti-immigrant right: the politics of the detoxified neighbour – good Germans versus bad Romanians or Roma. This vision of the detoxification of the Neighbour presents a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face. In what conditions does it arise?

Walter Benjamin’s old thesis that behind every rise of fascism there is a failed revolution not only still holds today, but is perhaps more pertinent than ever. Rightist liberals like to point out similarities between left and right “extremisms”: Hitler’s terror and camps imitated Bolshevik terror, the Leninist party is today alive in al-Qaeda – does this not rather indicate how fascism replaces (takes the place of) a failed leftist revolution? Its rise is the left’s failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, a dissatisfaction which the left was not able to mobilise. And does the same not hold for today’s so-called “islamo-fascism”? Is the rise of radical Islamism not correlative to the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries? Today, when Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that, 30 years ago, it was a country with strong secular tradition, up to a powerful Communist party which took power there independently of the Soviet Union? As Thomas Frank has shown, the same goes for Kansas, the homegrown US version of Afghanistan: the very state which was till the 1970s the bedrock of radical leftist populism, is today the bedrock of Christian fundamentalism. And the same goes for Europe: the failure of the leftist alternative to global capitalism gives birth to anti-immigrant populism.

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban are regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror – however, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat Valley in Pakistan, New York Times reported that they engineered “a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants”. If, by taking advantage of the farmers’ plight, the Taliban are “raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal”, what stops liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the US similarly “taking advantage” of this plight and trying to help the landless farmers? The sad implication of this fact is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the “natural ally” of the liberal democracy. . . And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for Farage and Le Pen: their rise is the obverse of the demise of the radical left.

The lesson that the frightened liberals should learn is thus: only a radicalised left can save what is worth saving from the liberal legacy. The sad prospect that lurks if this doesn’t happen is the unity of the two poles: the rule of nameless financial technocrats wearing a mask of populist pseudo-passions.

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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