Michael Sheen as Tony Blair in the 2006 film The Queen.
Show Hide image

Michael Sheen: The tyranny of mere wealth is destroying our democracy

Wealth without responsibility will inevitably lead to a society that eats itself from within and tears itself apart.

To purchase a copy of the Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer guest edit, visit newstatesman.com/subscribe, download it from the App Store or subscribe on Kindle.

Remember that scene in Grease where ­Danny Zuko is with his friends and then Sandy, the girl he’s had a summer romance with, comes along? He doesn’t want to look like a “ponce” in front of everyone, so he’s mean to her and humiliates her, and then later when they’re alone he apologises to her and says he loves her really. It’s hard not to think of it whenever I hear David Cameron talking about “wanting to bring our country together” and how he will “reclaim a mantle that we should never have lost – the mantle of One Nation, one United Kingdom”. You see, Scotland, I hit you because I love you. Don’t leave me. I’ll make it up to you, honest! Just replace Danny’s T-Bird wannabe pseudo rebels with Tory backbenchers, potential Ukip defectors and the true-blue core vote, and you have a pretty accurate remake. Just without the apology.

Now, comparing Cameron and the Tory party with John Travolta has its limits. We’re talking about a man who is embroiled in an organisation seen by many as malevolent, who is in thrall to an ideology espoused by a self-serving, dictatorial maniac responsible for years of suffering and abuse. Just to be clear, that’s John Travolta and Scientology I’m talking about.

This last election campaign was one drenched and distorted by fear on all sides. Fear of the Scots, fear of immigrants, fear of fiscal irresponsibility, fear of bacon sandwiches. Since the global banking disaster of 2007-2008 the economic situation has caused a great deal of fear in the UK and the programme of austerity implemented in reaction to it has caused and continues to cause a great deal more. It has been argued that the severe cuts sanctioned by austerity are totally unnecessary and are, in fact, holding back the rebuilding of the economy. Nevertheless, the coalition government pushed their programme through, along with the narrative that they were fixing what had been broken by the previous Labour government and cleaning up after their opponents’ wanton and reckless spending.

The clue to the real situation is in the word “global”. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone outside Britain who would listen to you trying to pin the financial crisis on the Labour government without nervously backing away as if they were being told that it was a secret race of Lizard People wot done it. And yet, a significant proportion of people in Britain are prepared to believe just that. That Labour and the Lizard People brought down the world financial mechanism by spending too much. Spending that the Conservative Party in opposition agreed with every single step of the way. It would be like popping a Ginsters pasty in the microwave and discovering you just nuked Africa. (No, that was not actually in the Ukip manifesto.)

Of course, where that same Labour government can be severely criticised is in not creating regulation that would have reined in the excesses and sharp practices of the banking world. Regulation that the current Conservative government would now be in the process of dismantling, of course. Because the Conservatives want less regulation. It’s worth saying again – the banking crisis happened because there wasn’t enough regulation in place to contain the lust for profit over and above any sense of responsibility to anything else, and the Conservatives want even less of it.

Now, given all that, you’d think it would be an absolute open goal for an excoriating rebuttal from Labour on all of this. They could tear the paint off the walls with their blistering attack on the explosion of the Thatcherite consensus, its blind trust in the all-knowing markets and the ultimate wisdom of profit-seeking firms. How they’d scorn the Tory-supporting bankers for having to be bailed out by the very state they have so much disdain for. Oh, the wrath that would be directed at anyone who dared to talk about the danger of welfare “handouts”, when the greatest danger was quite clearly those who were being given massive handouts by the state to sort out the miserable mess they had created in the first place.

You’d expect them to be screaming it from the rooftops, along with the argument that the Tories are using the disguise of “much-needed” austerity measures to push forward the right-wing agenda of dismantling state mechanisms for ensuring equality. It is policy being led by ideology, not economic necessity, in the same way a neocon agenda was given its head in the US after the 9/11 attacks under the guise of “homeland security measures”. You’d think that we would be sick of hearing about all this from the Labour leadership by now.

So, why the resounding silence? Well, here we have the crux of the matter. New Labour became toxic with the electorate primarily because of Iraq and also because it was the one in office when the banking collapse happened. In the hope of not being smeared with the same brush, Ed Miliband wanted to disassociate himself from all things Blair-Brown. He gambled that not standing up for the positives in New Labour’s record would be worth it, weighed against not being blamed for the negatives. He also seemed to want to appeal to the more traditional left-wingers by standing up to the bastions of the right, such as “predatory” big business, Rupert Murdoch and so on, but doing it really quietly so he wouldn’t alienate the centrists he needed to win the election.

Well, one Old Etonian could have sounded a warning to Miliband’s Labour – George Orwell. In his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, he wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” Miliband let the Tories control the past by not stamping out the “Labour caused the recession” narrative early on. Not only did this feed into the ­conventional Tory myth of fiscal responsibility v Labour’s economic ineptitude, but it also prevented Labour from getting on the front foot about what did cause it, who was responsible and what might be necessary to prevent something similar happening again. Once Cameron and Osborne controlled that narrative of the past, it became impossible for Labour to form a coherent one of its own in the present.

The future now belongs to the Tories; the next five years at least. They face the pressures of globalisation on one side and a rising politics of identity on the other. Local councils are fearful of what another round of cuts will do to services that have already been stripped to the bone. All this takes place within the context of an ever-growing mistrust and outright contempt for the entire political culture and its inhabitants.

The Tories might have won the election but they are just as woefully unprepared for the reality of what needs to be done as Labour is. At least Labour has the opportunity to regroup and have a long, hard look at itself. Change is being forced upon it by humiliation and perhaps in the long term that is no bad thing.

So, where does Labour go from here? The muted and confused narrative of the past five years has made it difficult to know if Miliband lost because he was seen as too left-wing or not left-wing enough. Or just not anything enough. Neil Kinnock welcomed Miliband’s election by saying, “We’ve got our party back.” Tony Blair said that when a traditional party of the left goes up against a traditional party of the right it ends in the traditional result – a Labour loss. Labour did lose, but was Blair right? I suppose it depends on where you’re standing. The SNP swept the board north of the border with the kind of rhetoric and vision that has been seen as a traditional-left position. Could Labour have done the same? How would that kind of message have played with the voters in England? And, whatever the message, what if it had been delivered by a leader who was seen as more substantive and electable than Ed Miliband? At the time of writing, there’s a handful of Labour leadership candidates essentially trying to be everything to everyone. Aspiring to be aspirational to the aspirants who aspire towards aspiration.

When you hit rock bottom, you need time to accept that you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about and that you really have gone terribly wrong, before you can trust yourself to come out with anything worth saying. I suspect that period is a bit longer than a few days. I find it deeply troubling that most of the talk is about how to become electable again. How to reclaim the share of seats that Labour had at the end of the 1990s. In the same way that, in retrospect, it is deeply troubling to realise how much the opinion polls led the policies in the recent election period and were proved totally wrong in the end. It’s the tail wagging the dog, isn’t it? While the dog is taking a shit, no less.

The question of whether Labour moves back towards the centre, doing more to seem business-friendly or breaking away from the unions, is totally secondary to the fundamental question: “What do you believe in?” If it wasn’t about getting elected, or ­being popular, or being successful in the short term: what do you believe in? Then, how do you turn that into policy that can make concrete change? You should have deeply held beliefs and core principles based on your experience of living with and listening to the people you are representing, shouldn’t you? Then that becomes the bedrock from which you are able to face the uncertainties and challenges of the future. Your adaptability and flexibility in the moment is precisely related to how solid you are at your core. If politics is about compromise and flexibility on the surface, then unless there is a passionate belief at the heart of what you do, you will die slowly, eaten up from the inside, crumbling from within. You won’t realise it until your head hits the floor, your mouth still moving, making promises into the dust.

It’s easy to forget that democracy is an imposition. It does not arise naturally. Its victories and progressions are often pulled from grasping hands that wish them to be withheld. Its aim is to express the will of the people, and for that will to be the basis of the authority of government. It is made manifest through the institutions that are created to reflect it and the mechanisms that are put in place to deliver it.

We have seen through recent history that the establishment of those institutions and mechanisms is a slow process. They don’t suddenly appear once a dictatorship or the like is overthrown. They must be designed carefully. They have to channel what is best about us and keep in check what is worst. Self-interest at the expense of the many will always be lurking. Fear will always be used as a tool to exploit weakness and tear asunder what has been so carefully built.

It can be difficult to recognise the face of regression, because it is not the new. It has a familiarity about it and can be easily mistaken for something known and safe. Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, said: “Man is not free unless government is limited.” If the banking crash taught us anything, it is that freedom is dangerous if it does not go hand in hand with responsibility. The 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, saw the merging of big firms such as the railroads and the oil companies, and the consolidation of wealth into fewer hands that resulted from it, as a grave threat. He wrote, “. . . we had come to the stage where for our people what was needed was a real democracy; and of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy.”

Roosevelt made aggressive use of the Sherman Antitrust Act 1890 to break up large industries reaching monopolistic levels. A handful of wealthy heads of corporations were beginning to exert increasing influence over industry, public opinion and politics after the American civil war. A journalist of the time, Walter Weyl, wrote that money was the “mortar of this edifice”, with ideological differences among politicians fading and the political realm becoming “a mere branch in a still larger, integrated business. The state, which through the party formally sold favours to the large corporations, became one of their departments.”

Wealthy heads of ever-merging corporations consolidating wealth and exerting influence over the policies of democratically elected government. Public opinion being shaped by a mainstream press owned by many of the wealthiest people in the country. Political parties becoming ideologically indistinguishable. Sound familiar?

We have to defend ourselves against a plutocracy by proxy. Against politicians shaping the mechanisms of democracy to serve the wealthy few, whose ranks they will join once their governmental tenure is over. Rolling back fundamental rights and freedoms. Doing away with checks and balances. Reducing the reach of the state to allow market forces to run amok. People’s lives reduced to figures on a chart. All done in the name of “efficiency” and “fairness”, but in reality to allow greater ease of access to vast sums of money for fewer and fewer people. Undeniably, wealth must be created in any society that wishes to sustain itself, and wealth creation should be promoted and supported by government. But wealth created in the face of ever-increasing inequality, which takes no responsibility for the society to which it is intrinsically connected, will inevitably lead to a society that eats itself from within and tears itself apart.

If we are to withstand the truly terrifying possibilities that something such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – a free-trade treaty that jeopardises the future of the NHS as we know it – might visit upon us, then we must be vigilant, informed and organised. Look it up, read about it and be ready. The challenge of our immediate future is that the architecture of our democracy clearly needs to be ­reformed. We have to ensure that it serves the will of the people more fairly and provides for greater equality and inclusivity.

Can our leaders be trusted to take that delicate but supremely important journey of renewal on our behalf? Can we trust them to do it in a way that leads us away from the “tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy”, and towards an ever purer expression of the greatest imposition of all – true democracy?

Michael Sheen is an actor. He tweets at: @michaelsheen.

***

Now listen to Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer discuss censorship and creativity on the NS podcast:

 

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

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?

***

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?

***

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