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Neil Kinnock, the man who saved Labour

Tony Benn saw him as the great betrayer and he led his party to two general election defeats. But now the best platform speaker of his generation has got his bounce back – and Kinnock’s reputation is on the rise.

A man of his word: Gerald Scarfe’s Sabre-Toothed Ptorydactyl, SDP dodo and Lesser Welsh Speckled Dragon (Kinnockus Pillockus Rhetoric), 1989

When Neil Kinnock told Ed Miliband that he should consider standing for the Labour leadership, the latter mentioned the little matter of his brother, David. Kinnock told him: “If you don’t mind David standing against you, why should David mind you standing against him?” “It’s not that simple,” said Ed. Kinnock replied: “Nothing is ever that simple.”

Kinnock laughs as he tells the story, but it’s a solemn laugh. In the 31 years since he was elected Labour leader himself, nothing has been simple for Neil Kinnock. If you listened to Tony Benn or Arthur Scargill, he was the great betrayer. Others believe that he has saved Labour twice. He saved it when he was leader from becoming an irrelevance after the Benn ascendancy. And then by helping to make Ed Miliband leader he saved it from becoming a mere US-style electoral machine whose default position was to support the rich and powerful. Today, as Ed Miliband goes into a make-or-break conference in Manchester, Kinnock is still prominent in his corner.

Is Ed Miliband the Kinnock de nos jours, as is often said by his disparagers? Not at all, says Roy Hattersley, who was Kinnock’s deputy from 1983 to 1992. “They are completely different. Neil is the orator, the Nye Bevan figure. Ed is the cerebral politician, the Hugh Gaitskell figure.”

Back in the 1950s, Bevan personified Labour’s left and Gaitskell its right. Hattersley treasures the moment when Ed Miliband told him: “I’m a Croslandite,” because this establishes him in the Gaitskell camp.

But Kinnock says: “It’s a different generation with new challenges. There are lots of issues he [Miliband] doesn’t have to address. The conditions facing me required a bare-chested approach. It now needs greater subtlety.”

It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar personalities. Kinnock is noisy, extrovert, affectionate and emotional, and he was, as Hattersley says, “the best platform speaker of my generation”. No one accused him of being geeky. By contrast, Miliband is quiet and thoughtful, charming but no tub-thumper, probably less sensitive to criticism than he sounds, and very clever. He told Kinnock that he was going to address Labour’s conference without notes. “I was terrified,” says Kinnock, but: “He does it brilliantly. It’s a sign of real depth.”

However, their leaderships have this much in common – the media and some of their party colleagues went in hard and early to kick the bounce out of them. The Bennites (for Kinnock) and the Blairites (for Miliband) predicted that neither would be prime minister. With Kinnock, it worked. It won’t work a second time if there’s anything Kinnock can do to prevent it.

I first met Neil Kinnock in 1982, when I was Labour’s press officer for the Peckham by-election at which Harriet Harman entered parliament. The grim, sectarian chairperson of the Peckham Labour Party women’s committee watched Kinnock exchanging rugby reminiscences with a senior policeman sent to look after our walkabout, and muttered furiously: “How macho!”

He had already made enemies. His refusal to support Tony Benn against Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981 had cost Benn the job. Benn never forgave him. Even in old age, in the final volume of his memoirs, published last year, Benn could not bring himself to mention Kinnock without a cruel sneer. He records attending an event and seeing guests who included “Neil Kinnock, now 65, laughing boy Kinnock”. Kinnock’s ready laugh is one of his most attractive traits.

In March 1983 the Labour Party lost one of its safest seats, Bermondsey, in south-east London, in a by-election. (It was won by Simon Hughes for the Liberals against Peter Tatchell.) The day the dreadful result was declared, Labour strategists, in a spirit of bravado, called another by-election straight away instead of delaying in the hope of better times. I again found myself in demand as a press officer.

One cold day that month, I went to Darlington station to meet a short, sturdy, noisy young man with ginger hair and a loud houndstooth suit. He stepped smartly off the London train, borrowed £5 from me and took everyone he found in the nearby party headquarters to the pub. In Darlington in 1983 you could buy a substantial round of drinks with £5.

He did not stop talking for a moment in the pub. As a stream of ideas tumbled out of him, each one perfectly wrapped in an evocative phrase, the ageing Labour grandee Barbara Castle listened in uncharacteristic silence. She seemed to be seeing the reincar­nation of her dead hero, Aneurin Bevan.

Eventually we dragged Kinnock across to the biggest hall in town, which seated hundreds and was packed out. He spoke for a full hour, making his audience laugh and cry in turn at his attacks on Margaret Thatcher’s government. “Now, the cabinet wets – By the way, do you know why they call them that? It’s because that’s what they do when she shouts at them.”

Then I took him to a private room and whispered that I had overheard a plot to oust Michael Foot as leader. Kinnock buoyed me with his optimism, and for a good five minutes we both believed that soon Foot would be prime minister.

We went down to the hotel bar, where a huge press pack was assembled; this was certainly the last by-election before the general election. There he took them on. This journalist had written a load of rubbish about Footie; that one was so deeply in hock to the Tories that he played “See the conquering heroine comes!” every time Maggie wiped her feet on him. As others left for their beds one by one, Kinnock’s musical Welsh cadences followed them to the hotel lift.

On the train home the next day, he snagged the houndstooth suit on a nail. No one has seen Kinnock in a loud suit for years. Seven months later, after Labour’s crushing defeat in the general election, Kinnock was elected leader of his party. He was 41 and his best years were over.

At once, the Conservatives, the newspapers and the Bennites set to work on him. Those who remember only the party leader, struggling to find words sufficiently boring that they offered no hostages to fortune; or the demoralised figure who gave up the leadership after his second general election defeat in 1992; or the European commissioner mastering the dead language of Eurocracy, stare in disbelief when I tell them that in the early 1980s he was easily the most exciting politician in Britain.

Born in 1942, Kinnock was the political leader of the Look Back in Anger generation. John Osborne’s play premiered in 1956, the year Britain invaded Suez and learned she was no longer a world power, and the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and showed that communism was no longer a proper vehicle for the idealism of the young. It was the generation to which both Osborne and Arnold Wesker spoke, a generation that believed it owed a debt to Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan; that spoke of socialism and Jimmy Porter’s great, brave causes. Youth found the voice that had been stifled by the grey conformism of the postwar years; a voice that had not yet turned into the muddled strivings of the late 1960s and the harsh sectarian stridency of the 1970s.

Yet he also carried Labour’s history as no other politician of his time could do, a man of the left with the revivalist socialism of the Welsh valleys. Michael Foot saw him like that, for Foot was Aneurin Bevan’s friend and biographer and Kinnock’s friend and mentor.

At the 1970 general election, aged just 28, Kinnock became MP for Bedwellty, one of the safest Labour seats in the country. After Labour’s 1979 election defeat, he entered the shadow cabinet as education spokesman, still aged only 37. If we had been told then that, 35 years later, Neil Kinnock would never have occupied any post in government, and that selective education would be stronger than ever, we would have laughed at so absurd a notion.

“Education is something he feels very deeply about – he knows it changed his own life,” Fred Jarvis, the then general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, told me. “And he’s not afraid to say the word ‘comprehensive’, which makes him unusual in today’s Labour Party.” Jarvis is still one of Kinnock’s friends.

He was, for those days, young and inexperienced when he became Labour leader in 1983, and felt in need of advice. A posse of clever men and women a decade younger than himself, politicians of the harsher era of the 1970s, became his praetorian guard: the Cambridge graduates Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke, who had been president of the National Union of Students (NUS); the Oxford graduate Peter Mandelson, who had been chairman of the British Youth Council. Kinnock says they “had been student union officers very young, and after that they came and worked for me”.

Among the other Kinnock confidants who had cut their teeth in student politics were the former NUS president Jack Straw and John Reid, a former young communist. Fighting the ultra-left was in their bones. They had fought them in the student unions and now they fought them for Kinnock, unrelentingly and obsessively.

They told him he had to acquire gravitas. Hewitt erected a barrier between their leader and the lobby journalists, who were used to the old, genial, witty Kinnock. Roy Hattersley says that Clarke did Kinnock great harm by protecting him when he did not need protecting.

“It was a terrible mistake,” Hattersley told me. “Clarke told him not to make speeches, because he only needed to make one mistake to lose the next election. But he would not have done that. He knew how not to do that. So Kinnock, this great platform speaker, just stopped using that talent. It was a dreadful waste.” (Clarke declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Kinnock’s protectors told him that his personality was all wrong. The noise, the passion, the bons mots, the houndstooth suits – everything that had endeared him to the public before he was elected leader – it all had to go. He started to wrap himself up in grey flannel suits and grey woollen phrases. Brendan Bruce, the Conservative director of communications for part of Kinnock’s time as leader, has said: “He was badly let down by his image-makers in recent years. There were endless things they could have done.”

It seemed as though they did not trust their man not to bungle if let out without a leash, and perhaps Kinnock started to take himself at their estimate.

Vicious attacks from right-wing tabloids and left-wing rivals punctured his skin, which turned out to be thin for a top politician. The magic went out of his relationship with journalists. His sure broadcasting touch started to desert him as he began to weigh every word and waffle to cover policy divisions. Perhaps for the first time in his adult life, he felt unsure of himself.

Kinnock knew he was young and inexperienced for the job. He could be the first person since Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 to become prime minister without having served in a government. When Hugo Young, the late Guardian commentator, wrote that he had “a pass degree in industrial relations from Swansea University on the second try in a bad year”, the sneer, according to Hattersley, “worried Neil much more than it should have done”.

References in Kinnock’s papers suggest that Hattersley is right. “Hugo Young was a friend of mine, and I told him that this was an appalling and stupid thing to write,” Hattersley says. “Neil could hold his own intellectually with anyone he might need to, as Labour leader or as prime minister.”

Young was an Oxford man, like every prime minister since 1945 except Churchill and Callaghan (and later Major), who did not go to university. The snobbery should not have upset Kinnock, but, as Hattersley recalls, it did.

Unfair attacks, whether from Norman Tebbit on the right, Tony Benn on the left, or Hugo Young on the higher intellectual plane, wounded him. As Denis Healey once said to Hattersley: “It’s all right for us. We’ve been up to our eyes in shit for years. He’s not used to it.”

Kinnock and Hattersley had fought each other for the leadership, but, unlike Blair and Brown a generation later, they buried their personal differences in the common cause. “Neil and I got on,” Hattersley wrote in his autobiography Who Goes Home?, adding rather archly:

We were never soulmates. Perhaps we were not even “pals” – Neil’s definition of the proper relationship between leader and deputy. But we only grumbled about each other in private and went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate mutual respect.

The 1984-85 miners’ strike was probably the worst 12 months of Kinnock’s life; nothing hurt so much as the pain inflicted when Arthur Scargill persuaded some of the mineworkers that Kinnock, the son and grandson of Welsh miners, had betrayed them. He was sure Scargill was leading them to disaster, and as he told me afterwards: “I still curse myself for not taking the chance and saying, to a miners’ meeting – I would not have said it to anyone else – ‘You will not get sympathetic action without a ballot, and coal stocks are piled up.’ ” He says now: “Conducted in a different way, it could have had a different outcome.”

There was then – and still is, even now, though they are getting rather long in the tooth – a collection of keepers of the pure Scargellite faith who were young men and women in the 1970s. Twenty-five years after the strike, I watched these grim folk, hugging their ideological correctness to themselves like a comfort blanket, cheer wildly as Scargill addressed a London rally and said: “If Neil Kinnock had have called on the whole working class to support us, Thatcher would have been out in a year.” They must have known it was nonsense.

The 1987 general election resulted in another big defeat for Labour. The wounds from the media campaign, from Kinnock’s long battle with the Bennites, and especially those from the miners’ strike, went deep. The ebullience that came naturally to him in 1983 was starting to look forced by 1987.

On Clarke’s advice, Kinnock decided he must get rid of cherished policies: unilateral nuclear disarmament, public ownership of key industries, the repeal of all of Thatcher’s anti-trade-union laws.

Yet, despite the relentless rebranding and repackaging, his advisers insisted that there were still vestiges of the old Kinnock to be suppressed. Mandelson wrote privately to Hattersley that Kinnock’s “values and rhetoric are still tied strongly to the ‘have-nots’. He cares too much. He’s too much of a socialist and hates the idea of being seen as anything different.”

Labour’s then pollster Bob Worcester of MORI looked at the evidence from his research and said there was a different problem. Kinnock, he said, must go back to being Neil. The statesmanlike waffling was not going down well. But the skids were under Worcester, because his advice too often conflicted with that of the praetorian guard. They had forced Kinnock to give up the simple, direct, passionate language that won hearts. He was now delivering his thoughts in shapeless bundles of words.

Kinnock’s enemies, and perhaps some of his friends, had done something much more terrible to him than he did to them. They made him, just occasionally, boring.

Yet Labour was still polling better than the Conservatives. Its by-election results were improving. Its results in the European elections of 1989 were good. The Bennites were in full retreat. The poll tax, introduced first in Scotland in 1989 and then in England and Wales in 1990, was hugely unpopular. But Labour’s internal feuds were poisonous and well publicised, and Kinnock’s personal poll ratings stubbornly refused to improve. Near the end of 1990 the Conservative Party finally dumped Thatcher and elected John Major to succeed her. Major hastened to get rid of the poll tax and Labour’s climb in the polls halted.

Eight days before polling day in the 1992 general election came the Sheffield rally. It was supposed to be, as an internal memorandum put it, “a TV spectacular . . . full of music, movement of people, light effects . . . As the main BBC News comes on air, we will set off the indoor pyrotechnics, light shows and confetti guns . . .”

Earlier speakers overran, so Kinnock appeared on the platform late, and as he did so the 10,000 keyed-up people at the Sheffield Arena erupted. His repeated “We’re awright!” went down a treat in the hall – and came across dreadfully on television. But the problem was not Kinnock’s performance: it was the gaudy triumphalism of the whole affair. And if the praetorian guard had not kept the lid so firmly closed on Neil Kinnock, the dam inside him might not have burst on that Sheffield stage.

The election lost, Kinnock departed with haste and dignity and in 1995 became one of Britain’s two European commissioners. A decade ago he left the commission, took a peerage, and seems to have got his bounce back. The scion of miners had carried the heavy burden of being Scargill’s scapegoat for three decades. But the last time I met him, just a few weeks ago, we were coincidentally both at the Hampstead Theatre in London to watch Wonderland, Beth Steel’s fine play about the miners’ strike. Kinnock couldn’t contain his delight.

“The whole thing was brilliant,” he said. “And all the more amazing because Beth Steel was a baby when the strike took place, though her dad was a pit deputy – he only retired two weeks ago. The production, acting, staging was all great and the story was told with accuracy and passion. She’s doing banking next. Can’t wait!”

A few days later he was still enthusing, but less excitably: “It had a core of passionate dispassion. She was committed to pursuing a truth about the times from the perspective of the coalfield. She conveyed the sense of hopelessness overcome by determination to deal with adversity.”

Charles Clarke still says Kinnock was a great Labour leader – but the sting in the tail is that he does so in order to draw an unfavourable comparison with Ed Miliband, who he predicts will not win next year’s general election. “I think the most likely outcome is a Tory overall majority,” Clarke told the Huffington Post. “Neil has far, far more qualities than Ed Miliband as a leader. Neil was a fantastic leader and brought Labour back towards victory.”

Kinnock disagrees vehemently: “Ed is very bright, gutsy, and he takes on the big targets and presses them with intelligence and courage. Look at what he’s taken on: the press, the banks, the energy companies; he stopped us from becoming engaged in Syria [with the House of Commons vote on intervention in 2013]. Without his insight and fortitude, Cameron would have got his majority for that.

“He’s the opposite of David Cameron, who is superficial.”

And the opposite of Tony Blair?

“Very different from Tony Blair,” Kinnock says, quickly and seamlessly. All those years of not answering questions taught him a few lasting lessons.

But Hattersley spells out what Kinnock is careful about: “I think Neil felt it was time we had a leader who was real Labour.”

Hattersley says the old Kinnock is back, with all the bounce – and he is not sure it ever quite went away. “You watch him going round the Labour party conference this year,” he urges. “He knows he made a huge contribution; he knows that history will show he saved the Labour Party.

“He’s very content.” 

Francis Beckett’s most recent book is “What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?” (Biteback, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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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