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Misunderstanding the present: Ed Miliband wants to govern a country that doesn’t exist

For all their lapses, the Labour leaders of the past had a firmer grasp of reality than their contemporary counterparts.

Illustration by Matt Murphy

If anything defines Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party, it is the belief that British politics has reached an inflexion point like the one that enabled Margaret Thatcher to come to power. He has often expressed admiration for Thatcher’s determination to effect radical change and, while having quite different goals, seems to see himself as a conviction politician in a similar mould. At the same time, he is said to believe that Labour can return to government by marshalling its core support. But it is hard to accept that the Labour leader – a formidably clever individual with a highly developed sense of having a distinctive political destiny – has really subscribed to this strategy.

Large-scale socio-economic changes have been eroding traditional voting patterns for many years. Now, with its Scottish bastions crumbling, its support among ethnic minorities weaker, working-class voters in the English north and Wales defecting to Ukip and the Greens posing a mounting challenge on the left that could deny it seats in marginal constituencies, Labour finds that the built-in advantage that it has as a result of the coalition’s failure to reform constituency boundaries can’t be relied on to make it the single largest party in the Commons.

But Miliband’s leadership isn’t based on psephological calculation of this kind. He is convinced, with Thatcher-like certainty, that Britain is ready for a fundamental shift in direction. Speaking to Jason Cowley in 2012, he declared: “For me it’s a centre-left moment because people think there’s something unfair and unjust about our society. You’ve got to bring the vested interests to heel; you’ve got to change the way the economy works.”

In Thatcher’s case, the belief that Britain was ready for radical change reflected a palpable sense of national emergency, epitomised in the industrial conflicts of the mid-1970s, the IMF bailout of 1976 and the “Winter of Discontent”. For some today, the 1970s may represent the high point of British social democracy, a pre­lapsarian golden age that Thatcher wantonly destroyed; but at the time there was widespread acceptance that the postwar settlement was no longer viable. Few in mainstream politics or her party were prepared for Thatcher’s assault on the existing order. In academia, much of which was engrossed in introverted controversies over ephemeral orthodoxies such as postmodernism and structuralism, her policies came as a bolt from the blue. Even so, an expectation of impending upheaval was in the air.

It is easily forgotten that the 1970s were a time when sections of the political class were gripped by an apocalyptic sense of foreboding. James Callaghan may have scoffed at talk of crisis but the left was possessed by fantasies of building socialism behind the walls of a siege economy, while on the fringes of the right there was wild talk of a communist takeover and counter-coups. There is no comparable sense of national crisis at present. Many may resent the excessive rewards still being doled out in the financial sector; some may believe (as I do) that the marketisation of public services has gone too far and should be rolled back. A few may suspect that the financial crisis is far from over and the global economy is entering another dangerous phase. But there is no sense that the British brand of capitalism faces a crisis of its own. The conditions that allowed a shift of regime to occur in 1979 simply don’t exist today.

The belief that large numbers of voters are yearning for a major alteration in Britain’s political economy – a rejigged version of socialism, or some hypothetical variety of “non-predatory” capitalism – is a delusion that could be fatal for Labour as a party of government. Miliband is misreading British society in ways not altogether dissimilar to those that hobbled Labour in the 1980s and allowed the Conservatives to rule for nearly two decades. It is still imaginable that Labour could emerge in May with enough seats to cobble together a minority government with the support of the SNP, whatever remains of the Liberal Democrats and one or two Greens. It is inconceivable that such a government could endure and bring about anything like the transformation of which the Labour leader dreams.

Thatcher’s rise should serve as a warning to Miliband, not an inspiration. Her emergence as Tory leader was a mirror image of the rejection by Labour of Barbara Castle’s white paper In Place of Strife (1969) – a far-sighted programme of reform that could have removed one of the prime sources of conflict that brought Thatcher to power. If Castle’s proposals had been implemented, Thatcher’s rise would not have been possible. As it was, they were shelved by Labour and Castle remained, along with Denis Healey, one of the great leaders it never had. When it adopted the unelectable Michael Foot as leader in 1980 and split in 1981, Labour sealed its fate, with the SDP ensuring that Thatcher’s tenure in Downing Street went largely unopposed.

Thatcher’s rise was a chapter of accidents. If she had not been selected for Finchley in 1958, reportedly as a result of an electoral fraud committed without her knowledge, in what the outgoing Conservative MP is said to have described as a choice between “a bloody Jew and a bloody woman”; if potential rivals for the party leadership such as Edward du Cann and Keith Joseph had not, in one way or another, ruled themselves out; if her leadership campaign had not been ruthlessly managed by the wartime escaper and arch-intriguer Airey Neave, Thatcher would not have become prime minister. Again, if the Falklands war had turned out badly – as might easily have happened – she would not have survived opposition from within her party as long as she did. But overarching all these contingencies, the precondition of Thatcher’s success was Labour’s continuing failure.

Ed Miliband, photographed for the New Statesman by Kate Peters in 2012

Miliband likes to think that he can achieve something similar to Thatcher’s regime shift – this time towards a more collectivist political economy. But no such turn can command popular support. Thatcher’s vision of society is often described as backward-looking and in some respects it was: the country of her imagination was an ideal version of Britain in the 1950s, a cohesive society based on strong institutions. Ironically, that country was a creation of the Labour settlement that she was bent on dismantling. In the economy she achieved most of her objectives. The power of the unions was curbed, moribund industries were phased out and a more entrepreneurial business culture developed. In social terms the effect of her policies was the opposite of what she had intended. British society became more individualistic but at the same time markedly less bourgeois. The world of solid families and prudent savers to which she harked back was blown away by the choice-driven, debt-based consumer capitalism that she unleashed. She declared that the object of her economic policies was to change the soul of the country. They did – but not in the way she wanted.

The dutiful middle class that Thatcher celebrated is obsolete in a society ruled by an ethos of want-satisfaction and self-realisation. Many other factors contributed to this metamorphosis, not least the erosion of working-class communities by rapid economic change, which was also driven by advancing globalisation. But Thatcher’s policies were crucial. Through their unforeseen impact on social values, they helped obliterate the society she aimed to re-create.

The forces that thwarted Thatcher’s dream of restoring 1950s Britain pose an insuperable obstacle to Miliband’s project. The raffish capitalism that prevails today is Thatcher’s offspring. It is also an economic system that most voters have come to accept. Post-Thatcher Britain is in some ways more divided than the society it replaced. Certainly it displays larger inequalities of income and wealth. At the same time, it is less fixed in its hierarchies and notably less ready to defer to authority. An economy whose emblematic institutions are Primark and Poundland may look rather seedy in the eyes of high-minded moralists. But what reason is there for supposing that voters today will bow to the disapproving frown of any elite?

For the old guard in the party, Thatcher’s sin was not so much that she was a grocer’s daughter but that she refused to emulate its faux-patrician attitudes. Thatcher destroyed the culture of deference in Britain.

For many today, the sniffy view of Britain emanating from the bourgeois enclave of Hampstead, north London, looks decidedly patronising. It’s not that Miliband despises the world that the majority of people inhabit. He just can’t enter into it. This isn’t only his problem, of course.

Labour risks an acute form of the voter alienation that affects all the mainstream parties. It is like other parties in drawing its leaders from a narrow and privileged social stratum: the metropolitan professional classes who can afford to live in good catchment areas or send their children to be educated privately and then support them through years of unpaid internships and think-tank positions. But the rise of this political class is a special vulnerability for a party that claims it speaks for working people. Labour’s problem is that it has only one Alan Johnson. Soon it will have none.

Contrary to Miliband’s Blairite critics, there is no way forward in trying to re­occupy the middle ground. In a time when mainstream politicians are objects of disgust and contempt, the middle ground (if it exists) is no longer a safe place to be. Voters want something different – hence the rise in support for parties of protest. There is a common view that the party system will quickly revert to normalcy, as it did following the upheavals and fragmentation of the 1970s. But if Scotland is in the process of hiving off to form its own political system in a more radically devolved Union, this is an unlikely scenario. Even if the SNP fails to make a breakthrough at Westminster as large as many are expecting, the Scottish Labour contingent is going to be much reduced. With small parties taking larger numbers of seats, coalitions will be hard to hold together. Unsteady minority governments could be the norm for some time. Yet it is not difficult to envision circumstances in which the Conservatives adapt best to this changed political landscape.

Labour will have a future in these new conditions only if it has something new to say. The trouble with Miliband is that he cannot speak a language that voters understand. His instinctive bent is towards a type of academic discourse that has zero popular appeal. If thinkers of the left in the 1970s were absorbed in the fantasy politics of academic Marxism, Miliband is captivated by abstruse fancies such as “predistribution” – the theory, developed by an academic at Yale, according to which inequality can be prevented by changes in the economy, so that old-fashioned redistribution won’t be necessary. Does anyone expect an intellectual conceit of this kind to resonate in the supermarket or the pub?

For all their lapses, the Labour leaders of an older generation had a more reliable sense of reality. It is impossible to imagine Harold Wilson or James Callaghan turning for intellectual succour to a writer such as Thomas Piketty, who has been feted by Miliband’s inner circle. These old Labour warhorses would spot at once the hole at the heart of Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century: no agency is identified that could counteract the built-in tendency to inequality that the book diagnoses.

In this regard, Piketty illustrates a disabling weakness of centre-left thinking at the present time. Whether they take their cue from legalistic philosophies of justice and rights or Marxian theories rejigged with the paraphernalia of contemporary econo­mics, the bien-pensants who are Labour’s leading lights today proceed on the basis that analysis and argument can in themselves have a political effect.

Miliband can hardly be unaware of the gap between how he thinks of politics and how ordinary voters live. But the upshot is speeches such as the one he gave at the Labour conference in September 2014, a dire threnody to togetherness that could have come straight from Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It.

What was most significant in the speech, however, was what it left out. As many have pointed out, there was no mention of immigration or the deficit. No less significantly, Europe featured only as an occasion for vacuous pieties on the need for reform. Considered in the context of Miliband’s project of a new political economy, it is a telling omission. British capitalism has many ugly blemishes. But where is the European model that the left has lauded for its superior moral attributes?

The social market economy has been shredded by the austerity programmes that have become integral to the European project. The eurozone is now a failing neoliberal construction, with levels of economic dereliction and long-term unemployment in many countries (including France) that far exceed anything to be found in Anglo-Saxon economies.

Moreover, European governance is clearly unreformable. The Byzantine system of transnational agencies operating in the shadow of a German imperial veto has allowed a programme of quantitative easing (QE) to be launched by the ECB. But with the interest rate already so low, QE in the eurozone at the present time will have less impact than the programmes that staved off depression in the US and the UK. Europe can do little on the fiscal front, since it does not have a fiscal union or anything that resembles an effective government and never will. In the absence of economic growth, deflation will tighten its grip and economic activity will be stunted across much of the continent. At the same time, politics will become more extreme, volatile and polarised.

Ed Miliband at the 2013 Labour Party conference. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Not so long ago, there was a centre-left tradition of Euroscepticism, which included figures such as Peter Shore, Bryan Gould, Austin Mitchell (and, for that matter, Hugh Gaitskell). Miliband is parroting the delusional consensus of the past few years: the belief that Britain’s long-term future is inevitably in ever closer union with a united Europe.

His unwillingness to commit to a referendum (except under ill-defined conditions in which more power passes to European institutions) may be partly pragmatic in rationale: he does not want to be bogged down in the European question in the event of minority Labour rule. But there is a deeper reason for this stance. Along with the rest of his party, Miliband believes that the future lies with ever more supranational forms of government. To stand aside from this movement would be to place Britain “on the wrong side of history”. There is no factual basis for this piece of progressive wisdom. If Syriza’s victory in Greece does not fracture the eurozone, coming elections in other countries will. Podemos could enter government in Spain and the anti-euro Five Star Movement will grow stronger in Italy, while in France Marine Le Pen will edge closer to the Élysée Palace. Everything points to the European project being derailed by the rising power of parties of the radical left and right.

Plainly, the right is better prepared than Labour to respond to ongoing disintegration in Europe. Yet the beneficiary won’t necessarily be David Cameron. A nimble-footed but essentially insignificant figure, he is as committed as Miliband to an impossible programme of European reform. Others are tooling up to take advantage of the political opportunities the European situation is creating. While Boris Johnson is reinventing himself as a One-Nation Tory, Theresa May is morphing from the scourge of “the nasty party” to a steely defender of public order.

Like Miliband, Cameron may be able to form a government if he can put together enough support from small parties – in his case, the Ulster Unionists and Ukip. But given how intensely he is disliked in his own party, it is hard to see the Tory leader lasting for long in such precarious circumstances and any successor is bound to be more Eurosceptic. The analogy often made between Labour’s divisions in the 1980s and Tory splits on Europe is misplaced. There is no pro-European faction left in the Conservative Party, only a number of more or less radical versions of Euroscepticism, with Cameron increasingly isolated in his determination to keep Britain inside the EU.

An outcome in May that favours Miliband will make Brexit more probable. Whatever Nigel Farage may believe, British voters are not desperate to be out of Europe. The halfway house that Britain has inhabited – in the EU but outside the euro – has proved perfectly tolerable. An in-out referendum in 2016 or 2017 would most likely produce a vote in favour of remaining semi-detached. Voters will not opt to leave until they are persuaded that the status quo has ceased to be viable – and they are not yet convinced. But held against a background of a worsened situation in Europe by a Tory government with a new and more Eurosceptic leader, a later referendum could well take Britain out. In this respect, it is the Conservatives who are on “the right side of history”.

Miliband has waxed on vaguely about a new type of economy. He has had little definite to say on the large issues that confront the UK. No doubt he wants to avoid hostages to fortune. But his silence comes at a cost in uncertainty. If Labour emerges as the largest party in May, he faces the likelihood of needing the support of an expanded SNP presence at Westminster. How will he respond if the price of SNP support is the closure of the Trident base at Faslane – the one demand that Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have made clear is not negotiable?

There may be arguments for downgrading or decommissioning Britain’s nuclear deterrent. With the principal threats coming from terrorism and cyber attacks, it is questionable how much this costly relic of the cold war contributes to national security. Yet is it sensible for the question to be decided as part of a deal to shore up a short-lived minority government?

Ed Miliband’s project amounts to a ragbag of populist measures. Energy price controls were probably never workable. Following the fall of the oil price, Labour has quietly dropped them, but they illustrate the unreality of Miliband’s thinking. The British economy can’t be managed as if the rest of the world didn’t matter. Tinkering about with utility charges that are largely set by global market forces is as absurd as the left’s idea of building socialism behind a wall of protectionism was in the 1970s and early 1980s. Politics after the election is likely to be fraught and financial markets hate uncertainty. What would they make of a government that relied on the support of a party, the SNP, which, if it had prevailed in the Scottish referendum, would now be presiding over a fiscally failed state? Whatever the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 may say, a run on the pound would bring a Miliband administration to an end long before the appointed term had been completed.

When Miliband compares himself with Thatcher, he reveals an impressive degree of self-belief. He also shows a lack of understanding of British politics over the past thirty years. There may be a regime shift afoot in Britain but, if so, it is a second act in the one that began in 1979. Now, as then, it is Labour’s failure that is pivotal. A few years hence, as he contemplates the British scene from the distant sanctuary of Harvard or Yale, Ed Miliband may come to understand how he opened the way to another era of Conservative rule.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Enquiry into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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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