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Head boy adrift: Cameron, Farage and the crisis of conservatism

The Conservative Party is in a state of deep uncertainty. Since the defection of Douglas Carswell to Ukip it has been accused of being on the verge of a split, but that, in fact, has already happened.

Out on a limb: Cameron has cut himself off from core Conservative voters and is increasingly isolated. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It always used to be the case that the party conference before a general election was a time of uplift, real or imagined, for the Conservative Party. Even in the depths of misery – in 2000, say, or in 2004 – the party has shown an alarming capacity for self-delusion, deploying all that outdated tripe from the age of deference about the secret weapon of loyalty. There is little reason to suspect that this year’s events will be any different, given the level of delusion that appears to be afflicting the Conservative leader himself, and despite his embarrassments about Scotland, in failing to understand the realities of the issue, panicking when he did and almost certainly offering more than his backbenchers will allow him to deliver.

“Birmingham will partly be about celeb­rating what we have achieved with the economy,” a Tory MP tells me. “Our strongest suit is that Miliband and Balls don’t have a policy on it that makes sense.

“We inherited an economy in ruins and it’s no longer like that. Our unemployment is two-thirds of France’s, where they run a Miliband policy. But we have trouble on other fronts.”

Those fronts are, after the Scottish episode, what to do about England; what to do about Europe, especially its open-borders immigration policy; and what to do about the internal health of the party. “Some colleagues have lost a quarter of their members since the last election,” another MP tells me. “They mostly left over gay marriage and they aren’t coming back.

“Cameron said the issue would be forgotten by the election, but it bloody well isn’t. He had no mandate to do it and people won’t forgive him.”

The Conservative Party is in a state of deep uncertainty. Since the defection of Douglas Carswell to Ukip it has been accused of being on the verge of a split, but that, in fact, has already happened. Even if Tory MPs more conventional than Cameron have not formally turned against him, many have turned in their hearts. They have watched the haemorrhage, over the past four years, of activists from their constituency associations, people who have abandoned the party over disillusion with its policies and its failure to be more robustly and unapologetically conservative. They have become annoyed by what a former activist calls the “cringe” the party now routinely makes every time it is accused of being out of step with the centre-left consensus. Nowhere was this better seen than in the last-minute panic over Scottish independence, which culminated in Cameron’s much-derided “vow”, but that was not the only example. They have become frustrated by their leader’s fundamental disengagement from the real issues that affect their constituents – immigration, the lack of social mobility and the torturously slow economic recovery. When even tribal Tories become fed up with their leader – and many of them are even more disillusioned with him than their parents were with Ted Heath – the party ought to be getting worried.

Ministers still talk of how their party can win the election next May. There is the odd pessimist, but they mostly keep their own counsel. An older MP, no admirer of Cameron but tribally loyal to the party, regards many members of the 2010 intake as “flaky”. Outside the payroll vote, both in the Commons and in the Lords, gloom is more widespread. “We all underestimated Ukip,” a former minister and Cameron loyalist tells me. “It’s not just his fault.” Those fed up with Cameron – and there is quite a contingent now in the parliamentary party – point out that he didn’t help matters by piling insults on Ukip voters, many of whom often still voted Tory when it mattered. Some would like him to get on and conclude a pact with Ukip, but one of his friends asks: “How can you do deals with people you have called fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists?” Some people would begin by saying sorry, but Cameron doesn’t do sorry.

Part of the unhappiness is prompted by a doubt about how far he understands the mood of the party and the difficulty of its prospects, and how far he is thinking of the lecture circuit, or the merchant bank, or wherever he will consolidate his fortune when politics is over for him. His friends insist that, even if he manages to remain Prime Minister after next May, he’ll be out at midterm in the next parliament. Cynics regard this as his insurance policy against having to explain to Angela Merkel that Britain has voted to leave the European Union in a referendum that took place solely because his party forced him into it.

The criticism of his team in Downing Street, strident a year ago, has been muted a little by the effect of Lynton Crosby. The Australian pollster was welcomed by many backbenchers who knew about his grasp of populism. It is felt he has succeeded a little in getting Cameron and ministers to concentrate more on the issues that they believe voters really care about; but many MPs were shocked at the extent to which this unelected import influenced the July reshuffle, and particularly his role in Michael Gove’s defenestration. “Gove’s sacking was crass,” a backbencher tells me. “To be the enemy of the National Union of Teachers is a badge of honour. What we did to Gove was just appeasement.” However, a former minister says: “I don’t care what Crosby does so long as he wins us the next election.” MPs still feel that Cameron’s communications director, Craig Oliver, is second-rate and that the effective chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, tells the Prime Minister too much of what he wants to hear. The party chairman, Grant Shapps, is felt to be more invisible than any chairman in living memory has been this close to an election. “He’s a complete lightweight,” a senior MP tells me. “He’s out of the loop and the big decisions are taken without him.”

Two factors are operating in Tory hearts and minds to prevent complete meltdown, but both are precarious. The first is the conviction that Ed Miliband is held in such contempt by the British people that, come what may, they will not vote for him to be their prime minister next year. His performance in the Scottish referendum campaign, in Labour’s heartland, reinforced that. Some Tories make a comparison with Neil Kinnock, and it is not intended to flatter. The second is the notion that all those former Tories who voted for Ukip in last year’s local government elections and this year’s European elections have “made their point”, and will be back en masse to do what is expected of them next May.

Miliband is certainly getting bad read-outs on his economic ideas, and if the pound in your pocket is to be the main factor at the election – which it could be – then he may struggle with that large, middle-class contingent that Tony Blair persuaded to come over to the Labour Party, and that is needed again. Whether, after recent events, he is a more comical, less credible figure than Cameron is a matter that will be keenly debated. Like her or loathe her, Mrs Thatcher was a politician on another planet compared to Neil Kinnock; Messrs Miliband and Cameron are altogether better matched, and neither is beyond being identified with disaster and failure.

The Ukip question is the thornier one. I know too many lifelong Tory voters (and even Tory activists) who say they will vote for the party come what may next year, to buy the line that they have all “made their point”. The point they wish to make – that the Conservative Party is insufficiently conservative – will for many of them not be made until Cameron has been punished for his apostasy, much as the Powellites punished Heath in February 1974, even to the point of bringing in a Labour government. One particular line of Tory delusion is that Ukip wants an in/out referendum on Europe, and yet it seeks to remove from office the only person who has promised to provide one and who stands a reasonable chance of being in a position to do so. As far as many Ukippers are concerned, the remedy for that is in Cameron’s hands: he can offer an electoral pact to them and everybody will be happy. But as lead delusionist, Cameron does not believe that such a pact is necessary, because he is sure the Ukip vote will shortly evaporate.

Much has been made, since he became leader nearly nine years ago, of David Cameron’s privileged background. Perhaps too little has been made of the extent to which he shares the characteristics of the last public-school-educated generation to run the party – the Edens, Homes and Macmillans. Then, the watchword (popularised by Macmillan) was “unflappability”: a good Tory leader, or even a bad one, never let it be thought he had made the slightest mistake, never apologised, never explained. A man who was never leader of the party – Rear Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles MP – famously said, at a sticky moment for the party: “Pro bono publico, no bloody panico.”

Until the flap over the Scottish referendum, it seemed Cameron was cut from exactly that cloth; but then the panico in the last days of the campaign was precisely because of the suave, insouciant reluctance to be bothered by the prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom until it seemed about to happen. If the Tory party were a band, it would have been playing “Nearer, my God, to thee” at that precise moment.

Douglas Carswell (left) unsettled the Tories by jumping ship on 29 August. Now he intends to becomes Ukip's first MP. Photo: Olli Scarff/Getty

The iceberg has been averted – just. Had it been hit, the party conference would have become a desperate showcase for a leader urgently having to prove to his party, and to those in the country who could be bothered to take notice, that he was still fit to hold his job. Instead, there will doubtless be an attempt to pretend that nothing is amiss, that it is business as usual, and that the party will sail ahead united and untroubled into an election campaign for which this conference season has been the first launch.

The problem for Cameron and his party is that it is already too late for that. The old toff unflappability cons no one any more, because the deference required to be taken in has long gone. The political sixth form at Westminster, former research assistants and apparatchiks to a man, is widely despised by the voters. It is all the worse for Cameron than for the others because of his abundant lack of humility, and the Bullingdon Boy picture that lurks in the back of too many people’s consciousnesses.

Ed Miliband may seem weird and Nick Clegg thick and duplicitous, but David Cameron has something far worse than that against him, namely his innate born-to-rule arrogance.

Now the Scottish diversion is over, the Tories must concentrate on fighting an election in just over seven months’ time. That a split in the party has already happened was evident not just in Douglas Carswell’s departing his safe Tory seat in Clacton for Ukip, possibly turning it into a safe Ukip seat in the process. It has been evident, too, in the scores of Tory MPs who have hinted they will be happy to state in their election addresses that they will campaign for a No to Europe vote in an in/out referendum, in the hope that they will not face a Ukip challenge. As things stand, they may just have to grin and bear it, because there is no sign of any sort of pact – yet. That may, of course, change after the Clacton by-election result on 9 October, especially if any other MPs are tempted to do a Carswell. However, had David Cameron read any history – and given that he thinks America fought with us in the Battle of Britain, he probably hasn’t – he would remember the outcome of the pact between Ramsay MacDonald, then secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, and Herbert Gladstone, the Liberal chief whip, in 1903 to allow some Labour candidates a clear run at the 1906 election, in return for Labour not fighting seats where the Liberals could beat the Tories. Within 20 years the Liberal Party was all but dead, and MacDonald was sitting in Downing Street.

The most serious allegation Carswell had to level against his former party leader when he defected in late August was that Cameron was “not serious” about change in Europe. He could have gone much further, without hyperbole, and said it was hard to detect any subject at all about which Cameron is particularly serious, except continuing to fulfil his student politician fantasy of being prime minister. The state of permanent chillax – as Harold Macmillan would not have called his distant successor’s pose of unflappability – also betrays a detachment from the serious issues that Cameron ought to be confronting on behalf of the country. Macmillan, too, had that detachment, which led to him having rings run round him in the Profumo affair, driving him out of office a few months later. Some Tory MPs – especially those who have worked in the private sector – comment on what short hours Cameron puts in. His recent bout of holidays, just as the Middle East went critical and Russia seemed about to invade eastern Europe, was Cameron to a tee, and his Scotland humiliation was but the first and most obvious consequence of it. If we didn’t know he loves power so much for its own sake, we’d think he’d given up.

Because of his arrogance, Cameron believes what he wants to believe and not what it is rational for him to believe. When he was leader of the opposition he thought he could repudiate the Treaty of Lisbon once he became prime minister, and repeatedly said so. Then, one day, enough senior diplomats told him that he couldn’t, because it was locked in to all the other European treaties Britain had signed since it concluded the Treaty of Brussels in 1972; that he had no choice but to believe them. In his bizarre reshuffle in July he dispensed with the services of Dominic Grieve, a serious and accomplished lawyer, as attorney general – apparently because Grieve persisted in telling him that he could not dispense with EU human rights laws without leaving the EU. Now that Cameron is Prime Minister he doesn’t have to change his mind, he just sacks the person who disagrees with him.

What used to be the Conservative-voting public – millions of them now appear to be the Ukip-voting public – is obsessed with Europe for one reason alone, and that is not (as is often represented) whether human rights laws allow Britain to deport people to countries where they might be tortured or face execution. It is because the EU allows the unlimited immigration of people from economically deprived countries in Europe. The voters believe these people take jobs that the indigenous working class would be happy to do (though the evidence for that is scarce), that they make an immediate claim on public services for which they have not made a contribution through their taxes (easier to prove) and that, in some cases, they behave in a way the indigenous population finds culturally offensive. “There has to be a firm policy on immigration before the election or we haven’t got a prayer,” says a senior Tory MP. “You should come on to the doorsteps and hear what people say about it. It can’t be fudged any longer.”

This is the key issue upon which Cameron has failed to make common cause with his party, which now widely finds his occasional bursts of rhetoric on the subject downright dishonest. But there are others. For reasons rooted in cynicism, Cameron pushed through same-sex marriage. The grass roots of his party overwhelmingly opposed it. For doing so, they were accused of homophobia. Doubtless in some cases that was true. In many others it wasn’t. Anyone who knows the Conservative Party knows that for decades it has included a proportion of homosexual members that probably exceeds the proportion of homosexuals in the population. They are not just in parliament, but in the salaried organisation and the constituency parties, and they have been for as long as most can remember. For most Tories their sexuality is an irrelevance. The opposition was grounded in four things: first, many thought the term simply shouldn’t be applied to same-sex couples for logical reasons, as it had only ever been applied to heterosexual couples; second, it was viewed as cynical pandering to the agenda of the militant left; third, there were many worse things wrong with the country that required not just the time, but the goodwill of Tory MPs, to get through; and fourth, Cameron had no mandate to do it. That goodwill is in short supply in the Commons now, and even shorter in the emaciated constituency associations. As usual, Cameron didn’t consider the consequences.

Yet, for all that, it is far from a delusion to suppose the Tories could, if not win the election next year, end up as the largest party in a hung parliament. Some of the uncertainties that afflict the Tories also afflict Labour. In areas heavily populated by the white working class, notably along the Thames Estuary and in other parts of the south-east, Ukip is making more inroads into the Labour vote than into the Tories’. Ed Miliband is not popular with the general public, nor is he viewed as especially effective. He has no entrée with the middle classes of the sort Tony Blair had. He has no compelling narrative about the economy – the Tories can at least point to a record of growth, lower unemployment and some attempt to get the deficit under control compared to the mess they inherited in 2010.

“I’ve got white working-class constituents who’ve always voted Labour, but they won’t be voting for Miliband but for Ukip, because they feel he couldn’t care less about them,” a backbencher said. “So the results could be pretty random.”

“If we engage in fratricide at Birmingham we’re writing our own death warrant,” another MP told me. “But when it’s over we’re going to have to deal with a constitutional crisis. There’s going to be a lot of trouble over Scotland, and it will go back to Cameron’s poor judgement in allowing such a long campaign and then panicking at the end of it.” With numerous MPs now intimating they will never vote for the fulfilment of Cameron’s “vow”, more will follow, and the battle over that must not be underestimated. If there is a sense of calm at Birmingham it will be entirely artificial, and it will come before the storm. 

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Mail. His latest book is “High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain” (Random House, £30)

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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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