Jonathan McHugh
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The left wing case for leaving the EU

Supporters of the EU sneer “Little Englander” at those with a different opinion, but most of the arguments against membership are left-leaning and liberal.

Despite the denials by our political and media elite, the most important issue of the 2015 election was Britain’s membership of the European Union. Nearly four million votes went to Ukip, a party that has been consistently abused and dismissed by our controllers, with much of that support coming from former Labour voters, while big numbers of people backed the little-loved Conservatives.

Both parties offered referendums on Britain leaving the EU – Ukip powerfully, the Tories reluctantly. It is not hard to work out why they did so well, yet there is still little acknowledgement of this fact from the establishment. An arrogant refusal to listen to the public has left Labour and the Liberal Democrats in tatters. Nick Clegg could moan about “identity” politics in the election’s aftermath, but this matters to the majority of people.

Our membership of the EU undermined the major debates and warped most of the policies being put forward in the build-up to the election. The EU will influence the future of the NHS just as it helped smooth Tory privatisation of the Post Office and the organisational break-up of the railways; it is in tune with austerity and drives a larger and more deadly version in the eurozone; it escalates problems linked to housing, work, wages and education; creates worry and stirs up anger and threatens people’s sense of self. A lazy acceptance of establishment propaganda and a fear of being branded “xenophobic” have silenced many liberals and left-wingers. And yet the EU is driven by big business. This is a very corporate coup.

It is essential to understand where the EU is heading. The mission? To create a centralised superstate. As the former European Commission president José Manuel Barroso said in 2007: “. . . I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire.” While there have been idealists involved and progressive laws made along the way, at its core it is undemocratic and distant, a threat to all those living in its shadow. However sweet the propaganda, it is a tool for multinationals, another part of the globalisation process.

A majority of the British population is either opposed to or sceptical about our inclusion in the EU, and yet any serious discussion of what it represents and where it is leading is near enough impossible. Instead we have McCarthy-like campaigns directed at those who have a different vision for Britain and the other member countries.

However, decades of pro-EU spin have failed to convince the mass of working people of its worth; the only reason their opposition has been so restrained is the secrecy and speed of the takeover. This has occurred across generations, a slow-motion transfer of control, driven by the rich and powerful. Our leaders are complicit, know where their futures rest. There are careers to protect and promote, fortunes to be made. The feelings of the wider society are ignored.

The idea put across by its promoters, that the EU is somehow synonymous with “Europe”, is nonsense and yet this use of language has become commonplace. We are told that to be anti-EU is to be “anti-European”, but, in reality, to oppose the EU makes you pro-European. If Europe is its people and cultures then it is surely better that France, Greece, Poland and every other member state becomes a proper democracy again. If the main legacy of the European Enlightenment was the collectivisation of political power in the hands of the masses, then the EU model is the antithesis of this: centralising decision-taking in the hands of an unaccountable technocratic elite.

A single European nation suits the US government, its multinationals and its military. One leader is a lot easier to deal with than many. The same goes for a single currency. This is clear in moves by the EU and the US to impose the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which will allow the corporations of both blocs the chance to exploit each other’s markets, smoothing out “obstacles” in the process. The NHS would be targeted by US health-care companies and trade union rights threatened. Negotiations to bring in TTIP have been taking place in secret. There is no voting involved, no pretence at democracy, little proper coverage by the media. The main parties are broadly supportive. With TTIP comes the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system, whereby business can take governments to court if its profits are infringed upon. This is mind-blowing stuff, but our politicians say nothing.

The media tell us that the Tories are anti-EU while Labour and the Lib Dems are fighting their narrow-mindedness, and Ukip is dismissed as a far-right group bordering on the fascist. This is bubblegum politics. Little Europeans sneer “Little Englander” at those with a different opinion, peddling stereotypes, unwilling to consider the bigger arguments.

That it was the Conservatives who took Britain into a six-nation EEC in 1973 is dismissed. This was a betrayal of the Commonwealth, which a mere 28 years earlier had fought with us against two of these countries, the then fascist Germany and Italy. Commonwealth economies suffered as a result. Prime Minister Ted Heath insisted that the Common Market was no more than a trade arrangement, but a large chunk of the population was outraged and saw it for what it was, and Heath would later admit he had lied about its long-term goal. Labour was socialist at this point and along with the trade unions naturally opposed the Tories. Despite some big talk, Margaret Thatcher and John Major did not take us out, while Tony Blair would have joined the eurozone if he’d had his way. Backing the EU because the Tories are supposedly against it is pathetic. The EU is not a party issue. It is much more important.

David Cameron is softly pro-EU but has been forced into holding a referendum by rebel elements in his party. Ed Miliband was also a firm supporter, his own sceptical backbenchers keeping quiet for fear of being branded right-wing by the Labour Party’s thought police.

Last year saw the death of two genuinely left-wing figures within a matter of days in Tony Benn and Bob Crow. These were honest men who refused to bend to the group mind. They were idealists and knew where the EU was leading us. In later life Benn was patronised as a well-meaning crank when he tried to talk seriously about the EU. Crow died young and his dream of a left-wing, anti-EU party will be harder to achieve now he is gone. But this is what Britain needs. Urgently.

The move towards a European state is a long way down the line and yet even this simple truth is denied by those whose careers are sewn into the process. According to House of Commons Library research, if one counts regulations as well as directives, half of all UK laws are derived from Brussels, measures that cannot be reversed once passed; but if even one law is made outside parliament, then that is a huge abuse of power.

The EU has a president and a militarised police force in EUROGENDFOR, is pushing for its own army, and has helped stir up the crisis in Ukraine with its expansionism. Its single currency has caused untold misery for tens of millions of working people across Europe, yet there is no apology, just an arrogant demand for greater powers. The Greeks are branded lazy and forced to cut services in return for more loans.

If there is a referendum on our EU membership in this new parliament, the propaganda unleashed by the establishment will be unparalleled. From the Guardian to the Times, from the BBC to Rupert Murdoch, our masters will close ranks as withdrawal is deemed a disaster. But would Britain be damaged? For a start, we would save roughly £10bn a year in our net handout to the EU. This is a huge sum, which, if used properly, would benefit those who actually pay these taxes. The idea that our neighbours would no longer trade with us is simply untrue. Trade would continue and we would be able to deal with the rest of the world more freely. Only about 15 per cent of British GDP is accounted for by our exports to the rest of the EU and this percentage is falling as the eurozone stagnates. The future for Britain lies in building ever better trade relations with the economically expanding parts of the world, such as the Commonwealth countries. Britain would be liberated.

Most of the arguments against EU membership are left-leaning and liberal. Ukip has done so well because it tells the truth about the EU, even if some of its tactics and emphases put people off. That it can pull in Labour voters despite its Thatcherite, non-patriotic economics is revealing. Just as depressing has been the cowardice of the so-called independent parties. The Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru exist to promote localism and the devolution of power, yet they refuse to challenge an EU that is about the centralising of power.

The Scottish referendum quickly became about money rather than identity, yet few talked seriously about the madness of a standalone Scotland re-entering the EU as a new applicant and adopting the euro. Why would the SNP want to gain independence and then hand it over to a larger, more remote body, where it would have less say than now in how it runs its own affairs? Why would it want to have even less control of its economy? You have only to look at Sinn Fein’s attempts to keep Ireland out of the euro for a comparison. The whole debate about Scotland leaving the UK seems pretty pointless if the SNP’s willingness to join the EU isn’t challenged. If Scotland had its own currency and rejected Brussels it would make sense, but leave the UK and join the EU instead?

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Open borders are essential to the EU’s single state. It makes for a more mobile (often cheaper) workforce on one level, allows business and the wealthy easy access on another. It will also change voting patterns, as there will come a point when elections are going to be open to whoever lives in a country at a given time. There has always been movement of people and there always will be. Leaving the EU will not stop this, just take us away from the Fortress Europe model.

Ukip targets poorer workers, warning of the threat to working-class jobs and wages in the same way certain trade unions do, but it ignores “high-end” immigration and the negative effect this has had on the lives of the everyday person, especially in and around London. This probably hindered the party in last month’s election, limiting the swing from Labour. Everything we have has been put up for sale and the rich and powerful of the world are making a fortune at our expense. House prices are driven up and new properties sold as investments rather than homes. In large areas of London local people have been driven out, their culture erased. This creates huge ripples that spread through the rest of the country. It is natural to feel angry at this unfairness.

We are continually told that Britain’s muted opposition to the EU is somehow a quirk that shows us to be intolerant, but we are one of the most open-minded countries in the world. And the idea that every European is happy being in the EU is untrue. Most are resigned, feel more powerless and despondent than we do. The need for a left-wing opposition to the EU should be taken care of by the Labour Party, but it lost its nerve when Thatcher was in power, along with elements in the trade union movement, selling its soul to Brussels in return for some positive legislation. Then it was hijacked and turned into New Labour. Its collapse in the election is a continuation of this thread. Too many voters see it as hypocritical, unpatriotic, politically correct and in the hands of an aloof, wealthy clique.

Most important in all this is people’s sense of identity. This is seldom mentioned by anyone with a public voice, perhaps for fear of being branded “racist”. The less you have, maybe the more your identity matters, and the powerful elite do not have the right to sell this off to the EU or anyone else. Our controllers, tucked away in their big houses, worshipping money either openly or from behind their fake-liberal lectures, do not understand or care about this, and yet it is in the mass population that the real integration has always occurred, where diversity isn’t measured by the colour of your skin. This is ongoing, part of the British tradition. It is no shame to want to preserve your culture.

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During this year’s election campaign Tony Blair argued that the people should not be given the chance to vote in an EU referendum because, in effect, we could not be trusted to make the “sensible choice”. His elitist questioning of the intelligence of the electorate is no different from those 19th-century reactionary Tories who argued on similar grounds that the franchise should not be extended to women and the working class. Most within our political and media classes and big business seem to think the same way as Blair, want the EU issue sidelined, ruled off-limits for democratic debate.

The EU offers us little. It costs billions to belong to a club that interferes in our affairs and has created needless divisions, one that will ultimately lead to our removal from the map. If a European superstate is achieved, the resentment and anger will flow through the centuries to come, creating resistance movements right across the continent.

Leaving the EU would save Britain money that could (in the right hands) be ploughed back into the public sector to safeguard jobs and services. And yet, nearly every mainstream politician lifts his nose in the air and turns away, embarrassed at ideas he considers crass. Across the world people are fighting to be more independent, not less so. They crave democracy and accountability, want to see their identities and cultures live on. The European Union is not new and it is not progressive, its trail winding back to the Roman empire. Britain needs to look to the future.

John King is the author of novels such as “The Football Factory” and “Human Punk”. He has acted as an adviser for the People’s Pledge and co-owns London Books

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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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