Grace under pressure: Jarvis on a tour in northern Iraq, where he was responsible for security in the critical Rumaila oilfields.
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From war to Westminster: is Labour's Dan Jarvis a future Prime Minister?

In 2007, Dan Jarvis led a unit of paratrooners in Helmand Province. Four years later, he became MP for Barnsley Central. Xan Rice meets him and asks: could he go even higher?

In 2007, four years before becoming a Labour MP, Major Dan Jarvis was asked to lead a company of 150 men on a six-month mission into Helmand Province in Afghanistan. His unit, mainly paratroopers, was part of the Special Forces Support Group, the newest wing of the UK special forces.

The full details of Jarvis’s task remain classified, but it involved recruiting and training local volunteers to serve in the Afghan Territorial Force, an elite unit charged with taking on the Taliban. Jarvis was 34 and highly experienced, having served in Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone and completed multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he knew this mission would be his most dangerous and challenging yet.

On a previous deployment to Helmand in 2005, as part of a small reconnaissance team helping the British army decide where to focus its efforts in southern Afghanistan, he had been able to walk through the streets and bazaars. Now, with the insurgency raging, the only way in and out was by helicopter. Jarvis’s unit would be based at a remote fort. In desert terrain littered with improvised explosive devices and mines, the men would travel long distances in Land Rovers lined with ballistic matting – “basically a reinforced car seat”.

“The level of threat was very high and the level of protection relatively low,” is how Jarvis puts it. It was the sort of mission he had dreamed of. “I had aspired throughout my army career to lead a company of paratroopers in these very difficult circumstances,” he told me. “It was a fantastic professional opportunity.”

But Jarvis was conflicted. Unlike some of the younger men on his team, he had a family. When he first went to Iraq, in 2003, during the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, it was only two days after his wife, Caroline, had given birth to a son by emergency Caesarean section. Now he also had a young daughter, born just days before he had returned from another tour of Iraq. Caroline was aware of the risks her husband faced; he had known ten of the first 100 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. And she was fighting her own battle, having been diagnosed with bowel cancer the previous year.

“Quite a reasonable question to ask is, ‘Why the hell were you in Afghanistan at that point?’” Jarvis says. “It was because Caroline had undergone treatment for cancer and was in remission, and it was her profound wish that we would maintain as normal a life as we possibly could.”

Three years later, in July 2010, Caroline died from the disease at the age of 43.

The Helmand operation was as tough as Jarvis had expected. Vetting the Afghans was hazardous: the British soldiers never knew if people were coming forward for the right reasons. The “green on blue” attacks by Afghan forces on allied troops were just beginning. Jarvis also had to balance the military objectives with his desire to bring back all of his troops.

During the assignment, one Afghan soldier was killed and several others were injured. Some of Jarvis’s own men were badly hurt. But none died, which makes him immensely proud. “Those were formative times for me, frankly compounded by the constant self-doubt as to whether I should have been in that country,” says Jarvis, now a shadow justice minister. “It gives me perspective that I draw upon because, how ever tough things can be in politics, nothing will compare to that level of pressure and risk.”

In Jarvis’s constituency office at Barnsley Town Hall his staff joke about his fondness for military acronyms and mottos. When he writes RPE on a memo it means “relentless pursuit of excellence”. R&R is “ruthless and relentless”. “Ruthless with time,” Jason Keen, his press officer, clarifies.

I’ve arranged to meet Jarvis for a run at 8am on a late February morning. At 7.50am he is waiting outside the Premier Inn in the centre of Barnsley. “I thought we’d go out for an hour or so, a steady run,” he says. “One thing I must tell you is that it is hilly around here.”

Jarvis is training for the London Marathon, as I am. Or at least he should be. It’s only nine weeks to go until the race and he has managed a total of two practice runs. With the event due to take place just a fortnight before the general election, he would have been happy to skip it.

But since Caroline’s death, Jarvis has twice run the marathon for Cancer Research UK and it is the headline charity this year. Matching his time from 2014 will be hard, he says – he ran with his father and finished in three hours and 45 minutes – though he has no trouble answering questions as we run up a steep gradient. “You do 15 years in the Paras and you develop a bit of a mindset of getting tough at experiences,” he says. “There comes a point when the embarrassment of failure is much worse than the pain associated with trying to avoid failure.”

His lack of preparation is not laziness; he has little spare time. From Monday morning to Thursday night he is London, where he likes to be at his computer by 6am and finishes around midnight. Friday is a full day of constituency work in Barnsley and so is half of Saturday.

“I remember on my first day in the House of Commons [7 March 2011] a Conservative MP said to me: ‘The thing that you need to learn about this place is that it is only really a part-time job.’ I was pretty stunned to hear that and it’s completely not the case. You can potter around and do it as a part-time job if you want, but to do it effectively requires a huge amount of effort. I think people deserve that. I am not making any comment about whether I am effective or not. I think people will see that I put the work in.” (Three days later the Conservative MP Malcolm Rifkind is caught on a hidden camera saying he is “self-employed” and boasting about his free time.)

Jarvis arrived at Westminster as an outsider in both background and timing. He was not part of the Labour class of 2010 – he won his seat in Barnsley Central in 2011, replacing Eric Illsley, who had to stand down after being convicted of fraud for his part in the MPs’ expenses scandal. In doing so, Jarvis became the first person since the Second World War to resign a military commission to contest a by-election. Since then, his rise through the ranks – and in his standing among his peers on both sides of the House – has been swift.

Jarvis did not want to be typecast and so deliberately avoided being pushed towards defence and security. But he was eager to be challenged. After six months he agreed to become shadow arts minister, even though he says he knew little about culture. In parliament he drew attention for his robust defence of local libraries against the coalition cuts, and for championing the National Health Service, describing the excellent care his wife had received.

Jarvis is affable, relaxed and the same time deeply serious about his job as an MP and the concept of public service. Some things he professes to doing – such as a ritual pause to consider his constituents every time he steps into the Commons – could sound ridiculous, yet from him they feel sincere. “He comes across as a very real, authentic person, and that’s important in modern politics,” as Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP, writer and chair of the Commons defence select committee, who has worked with Jarvis in parliament, told me.

His value to his party is clear. Last year Jarvis edited a book called Why Vote Labour, part of a series explaining the main parties’ policies. And few Labour MPs can have knocked on as many doors as he has done in recent months. In January, he spent nine days touring 27 constituencies to assist the local candidates. It was a strong statement of loyalty and perhaps of ambition, too.

Writing at the time in the Telegraph, James Kirkup, the paper’s executive editor for politics, again noted the Tories’ respect for Jarvis and said he should be spoken of as serious leadership material. “How would the CCHQ attack machine approach a Labour leader who served his country in two wars? A man who is raising two children alone after losing his wife to cancer?”

The second line was incorrect: Jarvis remarried in 2013 to Rachel, a freelance graphic designer, and now has a third child. But the point was well made: Ladbrokes has Jarvis at 12/1 to be the next Labour leader, behind Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna. His ability to perform under extreme pressure may well be tested again before too long.

Military men are typically Tory supporters. The Conservatives have numerous MPs with army backgrounds, mostly with short periods of service. Labour has one – Jarvis – and with arguably the highest profile of all. (In 2011 he was awarded an MBE for military service, the only serving MP to achieve that honour during the Queen’s reign.)

Why did he choose Labour? It was not a sudden decision, he says. His parents were both Labour Party members; his father was a lecturer at a teacher training college in Nottingham and his mother a probation officer. They instilled in him the importance of public service. While still at school he came to the conclusion that he did not share Margaret Thatcher’s vision for Britain.

“The values of Labour are my values – the fundamental belief that collectively you achieve more together than you can alone,” he says. “The belief in the value of fairness, equality, the desire to stand up for the many, not just the few – giving representation to those without a voice.”

Jarvis became a member of the Labour Party while studying international politics at Aberystwyth University. By then he had already decided to become a soldier. Nobody in his family had served in the armed forces, so it was a “minor act of rebellion”, he says now. “I worked out early on that what you do for a job is an important part of your life. So do something you think is worthwhile and that gives you an opportunity to make a contribution.”

The army appealed to his sense of adventure. As one holiday approached at university, he and his younger brother, Rob, looked for something to do. “Some students went to Ibiza,” Jarvis says. “We went to K2” – the world’s second-highest mountain. Wearing their grandfather’s old tweed coats they made it up to 6,500 metres before accepting that they did not have the skills or equipment to climb higher. (Rob is now a professional mountain guide in Chamonix.)

After a year as a cadet at Sandhurst in 1997, Jarvis joined the Parachute Regiment. In Kosovo, he was appointed aide-de-camp to General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the UN force there. When Jackson returned to England in 2000 Jarvis accompanied him. He met Caroline at Jackson’s home in Wiltshire, where she worked as the family chef. They married the following year.

It was in Afghanistan in 2005, while following the UK general election at the end of a tour, that he first seriously considered a career in parliament. “My wife had not yet been diagnosed with cancer. I concluded that at some point, probably years ahead, I’d want to ease out of the army and get more involved in politics. My wife’s death accelerated that process.”

He has said that telling his children that their mother had died was the most difficult thing he has done. “It’s been hard for them. The only kind of minor saving grace was the fact my kids were so young [seven and five]. The magnitude of it was not completely lost, but if they had been the age they are now it would have been harder.

“It’s just one of those dreadful situations that you find yourself in and you’ve got two options: you can come through it or you can sink. Sinking was never an option because I had two small kids who wanted to go back to school quite quickly.”

He knew he could not return to war zones. But he did not want a desk job in the army. He quietly applied to be Labour’s candidate in Islwyn, south Wales, in 2010 and made the shortlist. The following year, the Barnsley Central seat became vacant.

Dan Jarvis, photographed in Barnsley this month by Rick Pushinsky.

Jarvis thought he stood little chance. The town has a long history of coal mining and union ties; on our run, we passed the house owned by Arthur Scargill, who Jarvis says is now a recluse. Every local MP for the previous 70 years had been from Barnsley or nearby, and most had been miners. And Nottingham, where Jarvis is from, is still associated with miners who kept working during the great strike of the mid-1980s.

“The only thing in my favour was that my predecessor was going to prison and there was huge discontent with the political classes. As someone untouched by all that, with a proven track record of service, I thought maybe I could be considered.”

He won selection through hard work and luck; at one point in the hustings when he tied with another candidate, they drew lots to see who would proceed. The by-election was more of a formality, as Barnsley Central is a safe Labour seat. But Jarvis was determined to make a point. He code-named his campaign “Operation Honey Badger” – the animal looks cuddly but is known for its strength and ferocity – and knocked on several thousand doors. He won 61 per cent of the vote, compared to the 47 per cent that Illsey had polled for Labour a year earlier.

After his victory, Jarvis moved the family home from Salisbury in Wiltshire to Barnsley. “Some people [MPs] decide that they want to be based in London,” he says. “I wanted to be rooted here. The kids are very settled and love the town.”

Initially, his parents – now divorced and both remarried – and his in-laws helped look after the children. Now Rachel takes care of most of the parental duties. Jarvis’s 12-year-old son and ten-year-daughter attend local state schools. “A bit of me thinks that it is kind of selfish for me to do it [being an MP and spending so much time away from home] . . . But we make it work.”

He thinks his children are proud that he is a politician, although his son was more impressed when he was soldier. They will help him campaign closer to the election in May.

Jarvis says Barnsley still suffers from misconceptions, with many people assuming that it is a heavily industrialised urban area. The last of the coal pits closed decades ago and three-quarters of the borough is green belt. The M1 passes close to the town and the Peak District is nearby.

Yet there are challenges. Barnsley Central is the 132nd worst of Britain’s 650 constituencies for unemployment. Underemployment is also a problem, with people who want permanent work having to settle for zero-hours or other part-time contracts.

“A lot of people are really struggling at the moment, making hard choices. This talk of an economic recovery: it’s a very different climate in London from the rest of Britain. In swaths of the country people are worse off by every metric than they were in 2010.”

Yet the Tories lead when it comes to economic stewardship and Labour is considered less friendly – even unfriendly – to business. Why is this?

“It’s because there is an election!” Jarvis says. “There are some clever election strategists paid a lot of money to run us down. There’s an absolute recognition [by Labour] that the private sector is an important part of the economy and that we can encourage business people to create wealth.”

I ask him about Ed Miliband: why are his approval ratings so poor? Opposition leaders have it tough compared to prime ministers, who have the benefit of incumbency, he says. Before they became prime minister, Jarvis recalls, Tony Blair was called “Bambi” and David Cameron was mocked for hugging huskies and cycling to work with his chauffeur behind him.

“When I talk to people about Ed, they do see him as a decent, well-meaning politician. But there is constant scrutiny upon him. I am not going to blame it all on the media but I think there’s a basic unfairness in the way the media have covered him. My take on Ed Miliband is that he’s an incredibly bright, thoughtful, decent guy who is doing the job for the right reasons.”

It’s now late morning and Jarvis is in his campaign gear: blue suit, comfortable brown walking shoes and a black waterproof jacket. As we approach the main shopping district, one of his constituents grips his hand and says: “We will beat Farage.”

Ukip isn’t a strong threat in Barnsley Central but it is in other areas nearby, including Rotherham. Labour supporters and politicians are concerned. (Later, Jarvis tells me that although the online version of Why Vote Labour initially sold better than the Conservative, Lib Dem and Ukip titles, the Ukip book is now the biggest seller. “Not that I’m competitive,” he says.)

“I am not remotely complacent about Ukip. They have successfully tapped in to a broader discontent about politics and politicians,” he says. But he thinks that support for Ukip has peaked. “They don’t have the momentum that they had at the time of the EU elections” in May last year.

The main market is busy with shoppers. Jarvis stops to talk to two female police officers and asks if they are having a quiet morning. “We don’t say the Q word!” one of
them replies in mock anger. They talk about the problem of local shops offering “legal highs”, products containing chemical substances that produce similar effects to cocaine or cannabis but not covered by current misuse of drugs laws. Jarvis is working with the government to have them banned.

We eat lunch at an Italian family restaurant. Out of earshot of Jarvis, I ask the two young waitresses if their MP is representing them well. The first says yes; she recognised him when he walked in. The second has no idea who her representative at Westminster is, and is only humouring me with an answer. “She [sic] is doing a good job,” the waitress says.

Jarvis chuckles when I tell him. I ask him what has gone wrong. “Many people think that our problems have outgrown our politics,” he says. “They feel lost in this rapidly changing world. Globalisation offers many opportunities but many challenges as well. We’ve seen how an economic crisis that had its roots on the other side of the world has had a direct impact on the livelihoods of people in this country and in my constituency. Technological improvements mean there is not as much of a role for those previously unskilled opportunities, so that brings pressures and challenges.”

The “established political order” also bears blame, he says. “Far too many politicians would never dream of knocking on people’s doors to ask them what they think. In many of the heartlands, Conservative and Labour, people sat on these big majorities and didn’t need to put the work in. The public was something of an afterthought. This has led to a breakdown of trust.

“Some people will try to simplify it and say it’s the expenses scandal. But that’s a tiny part of all this. Over many years there’s been a gradual separation between the political establishment and the people that they are there to serve.”

If the public’s confidence is to be won back, parliament needs to change. There are too few working-class people, too few women and too many career politicians, he says. “The public wants more people with life experience.”

He mentions one of Barnsley’s best-known MPs, Roy Mason, who worked underground as a coal miner at 14 and went on to represent the town from 1953 to 1987. “I suspect what he did would be much harder to do now and it’s a question of social mobility. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning: that kids who grow up here should have the same opportunities as those children in more affluent areas.”

I ask if he thinks what the New Statesman has called the 7 per cent problem – the domination of public life by a privately educated minority, as well as the correlation between poverty and educational failure – is also an issue at Westminster. “There is an over-representation of people [in parliament] who have been to public schools. That is a fact of life that we should seek to address.

“It’s not to say we have not got exceptional people who went to public schools who can do exceptional things. But we need a parliament that is truly representative of the public that it is there to serve.”

Like Jarvis, Rory Stewart – who made his name as a diplomat and author of books on Afghanistan and Iraq – entered parliament as a political novice, winning a seat in 2010. In an interview with the American magazine the New Republic last year, Stewart said: “It is difficult to work out what an MP is, what an MP does, what the role of the public servant today is supposed to be. Is this a useful way of contributing, and shaping things? I guess before I did this, it seemed much more obvious.”

When I ask Jarvis about it, he says, “I mean this in an entirely complimentary way – Rory tends to overthink things.”

He expands: “I am pretty clear what I am here to do. I am there to champion my constituents and make sure their voices are heard and to stand up for them. I think I have learned a bit about how you get things done and how parliament works.”

There are frustrations. One is a consequence of being in opposition and not being able to influence government policy. Another dislike is the “political pantomime” of Prime Minister’s Questions. “When I go round the schools I cannot justify that level of behaviour to kids who see it and ask me about it. Some people say it makes it more of a spectacle and fewer people would watch if it was not that sort of confrontational environment. I don’t really buy that.”

In a 2012 interview with the Spectator, Jarvis expressed admiration for David Miliband, describing his role as vice-chairman of the Blairite think tank Progress as evidence of him “seeing the importance of the centre ground”. When I ask him about this, he says he is also a member of Unison, Unite, the Fabian Society and the Co-operative Party. “In politics there are those who will always try to pigeonhole you. I have frustrated people by not allowing them to do that, and been very careful not to be linked with any one bit of the party.”

I ask what he thinks of David Cameron. “I have a huge amount of respect for the office of the PM and it’s the most incredibly difficult job. While [Cameron] has always been personally charming to me, I don’t know what he is about and what he stands for. He has never convinced me that he gets up in the morning filled with some ideological vigour to make the country a better place. With a number of that cohort, it’s about holding and wielding the influence and power of office for its own ends, rather than for the greater good.”

Does he aspire to be PM? He must be aware of the talk of him as a future Labour leader? He pauses. “I don’t spend much time thinking about that, to be honest. I am utterly focused on winning the election and that Ed will be prime minister. The consequences of not doing so are severe for this country. It is said of Michael Heseltine that from school he had this grand plan that he was going to do a bit of time in the army, make money in business, go into politics, go into the cabinet and be prime minister. I am always suspicious of those sorts of people. I just want to do the best job that I can.”

With a close election predicted, one might have thought that Labour would be exploring the possibility of an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. Jarvis rejects this. “We need to do everything we can to avoid the scenario of going in with the Lib Dems. Our focus is on beating them, not war-gaming on a scenario that may or may not come.”

After lunch, Jarvis’s office manager drives us to Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s constituency. Polls show that the Labour candidate here, Oliver Coppard, is within a few percentage points of defeating Clegg. Coppard and a dozen volunteers are gathered at Crookes Social Club and when Jarvis arrives they fan out into the surrounding streets to campaign. Few people are at home. “It can be a bit soul-destroying, knocking on 15 doors when there’s nobody in,” Jarvis says.

When someone does answer, he introduces himself as a Labour member campaigning for Coppard. He only lets on that he is an MP when called over to chat to a woman who wants to join the party. He asks her why. “Ukip is getting more powerful and I find that really worrying,” she says. “The only good thing is that it is getting people angry and doing things.”

After 90 minutes, it’s time to go. Jarvis is dropped off at Sheffield Station and rushes to buy a ticket before boarding a crowded train to Barnsley. His monthly meeting with local Labour Party members begins at 5pm in the town hall. Though he will be late, he will not cancel; he has missed only two of these Friday-evening meetings in four years – once to get married and once to appear on Any Questions. In the morning he will be back on Barnsley’s streets, knocking on doors. “The honey badger,” he said on the way to the station, “lives on.” 

Xan Rice is features editor of the NS

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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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.

***

 

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