Habsburg legacy: Hayek was born in Vienna in 1899, into an imperial regime that shaped his thinking about freedom and government.
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John Gray: The Friedrich Hayek I knew, and what he got right - and wrong

Hayek’s most striking intellectual trait was one uncommon in academic life – independence of mind, which enabled him to swim against some of the most powerful currents of the age.

In the 1980s, when F A Hayek was one of the intellectual icons of the New Right, some of the more doctrinaire members of that complicated and fractious movement used to say that for him a minimal government was one that provided three things: national defence, law and order, and a state opera. It was an observation made only partly in jest. The Austrian-born economist and philosopher may have been the thinker who, more than anyone else, articulated the free-market ideology that came to power along with Margaret Thatcher; but his view of politics was formed not in Britain, his adopted country, but in the Habsburg empire, where the ­Vienna Court Opera was a department of government whose existence no one would dream of questioning.

Born in that city in 1899, Hayek came from an upper-middle-class background – his father was a medical doctor with a passion for botany who always wanted to be a professor, while his mother came from a wealthy land-owning family. The Hayeks enjoyed the prosperity of the closing decades of what the Austrian author Stefan Zweig described as “ the age of security”: the long period of stability provided by the 68-year reign of its last-but-one emperor, Franz Joseph. Hayek witnessed the collapse of an imperial regime that for generations had been more civilised and more liberal than most of the nation states that replaced it in interwar Europe. It was this Habsburg realm, as he experienced it in its final years, which shaped Hayek’s thinking about freedom and government.

My interest in Hayek, which began in the early 1970s, was as much to do with intellectual life in the Vienna of his youth as with the condition of British politics at the time. One of the first questions I asked after we had met through one of the right-wing think tanks that were proliferating around the end of that decade was whether he had known Karl Kraus, the incomparable Viennese satirist, who in 1909 had written, with some prescience: “Progress celebrates victories over nature. Progress makes purses out of human skin.” Hayek replied that he had not talked with Kraus, though he remembered seeing him crossing the road to enter a coffee house some time during the First World War. Hayek had little in common with Kraus. Cool and reserved, he had nothing of Kraus’s wit. Although he was academic in his manner, Hayek’s most striking intellectual trait was one that is uncommon in academic life – independence of mind, which enabled him to swim against some of the most powerful currents of the age.

I was also keen to learn something of Hayek’s connection with Wittgenstein, a relative of his about whom he had written a biographical fragment, “Remembering My Cousin, Ludwig Wittgenstein”, published in Encounter in 1977. Hayek met Wittgenstein by chance, on a railway station in August 1918, when they were both in the uniform of the Austro-Hungarian army. Travelling on together, they talked throughout the journey – a conversation Hayek told me had influenced him deeply, though not because of any philosophical exchange that he could remember. The two would never become close and their paths crossed only occasionally; but there seems to have been a meeting of minds between the two artillery ensigns on their way back to war. At the time both were ardent socialists who attributed the disaster that had befallen Europe to the malign impact of capitalism.

At the start of the 20th century, Vienna was one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities. Though not without grievous bigotry – in 1897, after repeated attempts by the emperor to block the appointment, the city elected a virulently anti-Semitic mayor – the population was not divided, as much of central Europe soon would be, into violently hostile groups. The antique structures of the Habsburg state supported a society that was remarkably modern, not only in its embrace of technology (railways and trams, electric lighting and public sanitation) but also in enabling people with widely ­differing cultures to coexist and work productively with one another. The destruction of this order after the Great War by the forces of nationalism – which the US president Woodrow Wilson inflamed by insisting that Europe could be rebuilt only on the basis of popular self-determination – framed a dilemma with which Hayek struggled for the rest of his long life (he died in 1992).

How could liberal values be renewed in a time of political tribalism? It was a question Hayek could not answer. Instead, he came up with a mix of evolutionist pseudo-science and rationalistic designs for an ideal liberal regime. Having abandoned his youthful socialism under the influence of the doctrinaire market economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), Hayek came to believe that a process of social evolution would impel humankind in the direction of the values he favoured. His legacy to liberal thinking has been a type of scientism – the mistaken attempt to apply the methods of the natural sciences when examining the human world. It’s an ironical outcome, given that he was a forceful critic of scientism in economics. In his speech on receiving the Nobel Prize in 1974, Hayek described the efforts of economists to mimic the methods of the natural sciences as having produced a “pretence of knowledge”.

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One of the oddities of Hayek’s career is that while his professional standing was secured through his work as an economist, he had by the mid-1940s given up economics as his central intellectual activity. A major reason for Hayek’s shift into social philosophy was that he believed – correctly – that he had lost the debate with John Maynard Keynes about the causes of the Great Depression. There can be no doubt that his encounter with Keynes was the most important event in his intellectual life. Yet he had little insight into Keynes either as a thinker or a human being. He told me that during their acquaintance he never realised that Keynes had been homosexual – a surprising admission, as it was hardly something Keynes concealed within his circle of friends. The two men had quite different kinds of minds – Keynes’s swift and mobile, with an almost clairvoyant power of entering into the thinking of others; Hayek’s slowly probing, inwardly turned and self-enclosed. They were nonetheless on cordial terms.

Keynes found Hayek rooms in King’s College when the London School of Economics (where Hayek became a professor of economics in 1931) moved to Cambridge for the duration of the Second World War, and for a time the pair shared fire-watching duties on the roof of the college when it was feared that Cambridge might be bombed. With characteristic generosity, Keynes – while firmly rejecting its claim that government management of the economy is bound to lead to totalitarianism – heaped praise on Hayek’s anti-socialist tract The Road to Serfdom when it appeared in 1944.

The differences between the two thinkers were as much in their underlying philosophies as in their economic theories. Both were sharply aware of the limits of human knowledge. But whereas Hayek invoked these limits to argue for non-intervention in the economy, Keynes recognised that bold action by governments is sometimes the only way in which the economy can be lifted out of depression – as when Roosevelt (to whom Keynes had written an open letter in 1933) successfully adopted some aspects of Keynesian thinking in the New Deal.

Hayek was most original when he ­argued that the market is a means of discovering and transmitting information that is dispersed throughout society. It was this insight into the knowledge-creating function of markets that enabled him to formulate a decisive argument against central economic planning.

Generations of socialists have maintained that the failings of the Soviet economy were because of historical causes extraneous to the planning system: a lack of democracy rooted in tsarist traditions of despotism, the underdevelopment of the Russian economy when the Soviet system came into being, and Stalin’s deformation of Lenin’s supposedly more benign inheritance.

As Hayek perceived, none of these factors can account for the universal failings of planned economies, which have followed a similar pattern in countries as different as  Czechoslovakia and Mongolia, East Germany and Cuba. The fundamental reason for the failures of central economic planning is that economic knowledge cannot be centralised. More than the love of power or the inevitability of corruption, it is the limitations of human knowledge that make socialist planning an impossible dream. Here Hayek’s argument was unanswerable.

The trouble is that it also applies to unfettered market capitalism. No doubt markets transmit information in the way that Hayek claimed. But what reason is there to believe that – unlike any other social institution – they have a built-in capacity to correct their mistakes? History hardly supports the supposition. Moods of irrational exuberance and panic can, and often do, swamp the price-discovery functions of markets.

When considering how to overcome the Great Depression, Hayek opposed Keynes-style fiscal stimulus for the same reason he opposed monetary expansion of the sort later advocated by his friend the American economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006). In attempting to generate recovery by macroeconomic engineering, both monetarism and Keynesianism required a knowledge of the economy that no one could possess. Unlike monetarism – with which it has sometimes been confused – the Austrian school of economics that Hayek promoted insists that the quantity of money cannot be measured precisely, and that expanding the money supply cannot reflate the economy in a sustainable way.

For Hayek, the causes of the Depression lay in earlier central bank policies of cheap money, which resulted in large-scale misallocation of capital. Because no central authority could grasp the shifting pattern of relative scarcities and prices, only the market could determine the right allocation. Accordingly, believing that misguided investments had to be liquidated, Hayek argued in the 1930s for policies that were more contractionary than those that were actually pursued. The task of government was to get out of the way and let the process of adjustment run its course.

If they had been adopted while the crash was under way, Hayek’s prescriptions would have made the Depression even worse than it proved to be – a fact he later admitted. But he never accepted Keynes’s core insight that large-scale economic discoordination could be the result of the workings of the market itself. For him it was always government intervention that accounted for market disequilibrium. More sceptical as well as more radical in his turn of mind, Keynes questioned the self-regulating powers of the market. His work on the theory of probability disclosed insuperable gaps in our knowledge of the future; all investment was a gamble, and markets could not be relied on to allocate capital rightly. There were booms and busts long before the emergence of modern central banking. Left to its own devices, the free market can easily end up in a dead end like that of the 1930s.

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Keynes’s own experience told against Hayek’s theories. As one of the 20th century’s most successful speculative investors, playing the markets on behalf of his college from a phone at his bedside before he got up for the day, he understood – in a way that the inveterately professorial Hayek did not – the ineradicable uncertainty of economic life. As a member of the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Keynes had been horrified at the punitive conditions imposed by the Allies, which he forecast would destroy the German economy and lead to an upheaval that would “submerge civilisation itself”. Keynes had an acute sense of the risks posed to social stability by misguided economic policies. In contrast, Hayek consistently ignored these hazards.

Hayek’s blind spot with regard to politics was clear in the early 1980s when the first Thatcher government, in an attempt to reduce inflation and bring the public finances closer to a balanced budget, was raising interest rates and cutting public spending. As he had done during the 1930s, Hayek attacked these policies as not being severe enough. It would be better, he told me in a conversation we had around this time, if Thatcher imposed a more drastic contraction on the economy so that the wage-setting power of the trade unions could be broken. He appeared unfazed by unemployment, which was already higher (more than three million people) than at any time since the 1930s, and would rise much further if his recommendations were accepted.

Fortunately Hayek never had any influence on Thatcher’s policies. (Her chief economic adviser in these years was Alan Walters, a Friedman-style monetarist.) Equally, and perhaps also happily, Thatcher had no understanding of Hayek’s ideas. If it was true that she carried about with her for a time a copy of Hayek’s magnum opus, The Constitution of Liberty (1960), she cannot have read its postscript, “Why I am not a Conservative”, in which Hayek explains that he rejects conservatism because it lacks a vision of human progress. A case can be made that Thatcher was no conservative, either – at least if being conservative includes an aversion to policies that impose deep changes on inherited social institutions. But this is a view that goes only so far. Unlike Hayek, Thatcher understood and accepted the political limits of market economics.

Though he witnessed at first hand the collapse of liberal civilisation in interwar Europe, Hayek had little sense of the fragility of freedom. He observed how the Habsburg regime was destroyed, first by war and economic ruin and then by nationalism, but his response was to look for what he called in his book Individualism and Economic Order (1949) “a permanent legal framework”, which could serve as a guarantor of liberty in the economy and society. Here Hayek disregarded the principal lesson of the interwar years, which is that a liberal regime cannot be secured by legal diktat.

Geopolitical conflict and war, economic upheavals and new social movements have repeatedly damaged or destroyed liberal regimes. No ideal constitution can overcome the permanent threats to liberal values.

Yet throughout his writings Hayek invoked the mirage of a legal order in which vital freedoms are protected by being insulated from the political process. Something like this protection was provided by the Austro-Hungarian empire during the reign of the emperor Franz Joseph, and it is almost as if Hayek were trying to reconstitute the Habsburg realm in a new form that would last for ever. He was always sympathetic to the attempt to build a European federal union – a fact that only confirms his blindness to political realities.

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Hayek’s attempt to fashion a regime in which the freedoms he cherished would be invulnerable to political challenge led him to some curious proposals. In The Political Order of a Free People (1979), the third volume of his last major work, Law, Legislation and Liberty, he outlined a scheme for a bicameral legislature in which the upper chamber is composed only of people elected at the age of 45 for a 15-year term by an electorate also consisting only of 45-year-olds. When they reached 60, members of the upper house would be retired and given a lifelong sinecure.

Hayek liked to ridicule the idea that institutions could be designed on the basis of abstract models – a view he criticised as embodying a philosophy of “constructivist rationalism”. Yet his scheme for an ultra-liberal constitution was a prototypical version of the philosophy he had attacked.

It may have been a half-conscious awareness of the limitations of this rationalistic philosophy that fuelled his evolutionary speculations. Underpinning his defence of the free market was a belief in what he called “spontaneous order in society” – the idea that, if only human beings were not subject to oppressive governments, they would evolve in ways that allowed them to live together in peace and freedom. This was not a view held by Hayek’s friend and LSE colleague Karl Popper, who gently demolished it when I talked with him, or by the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, also a colleague at the LSE, who dismissed it – accurately – as “rubbish”. A type of unplanned order may well emerge in society but there is no reason why it should respect liberal values. There is nothing particularly liberal about the Mafia.

The fallacy that a process of social evo­lution is at work that will promote the spread of some version of liberal values goes back a long way. Propagated by Herbert Spencer, the prophet of laissez-faire who first coined the expression “survival of the fittest”, it was widespread in the late 19th century. There are many similarities between Hayek’s and Spencer’s theories, not least the idea that capitalism will prevail over other economic systems because it is more productive and can support a larger human population. Hayek assured me that he had never read Spencer, and I’m sure this was the case. Very similar ideas had been popular in fin-de-siècle Vienna. Hayek was doing no more than reviving a recurrent modern delusion – the belief that history obeys evolutionary laws, which somehow underpin a process of progressive social development.

The spread of capitalism over the past decades is a result of human decisions, not the workings of some imagined evolutionary process. Communism collapsed in the former USSR not because it was less productive than capitalism (though this was certainly the case) but because the Soviet state became embroiled in an Afghan war it could not win, while losing control of parts of eastern Europe and the Baltic states. Another important factor was the unintended impact of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform policies, which, rather than strengthening the regime as he intended, exposed how little popular legitimacy it possessed.

A variety of capitalism came to China through the policies of Deng Xiaoping, who pulled down the curtain on the Maoist era. None of these developments resulted from the operation of evolutionary laws, and we are now seeing a reassertion of state power in both Russia and China.

Hayek’s belief that vital freedoms can be enshrined in law and thereby taken out of politics is ultimately delusive. But it is not an aberration peculiar to the brand of right-wing liberalism that he professed. An anti-political liberalism is the ruling illusion of the current generation of progressive thinkers. Philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin had views of justice very different from Hayek’s. Whereas Hayek rejected any redistribution of income beyond that required by a minimum level of subsistence, Rawls and Dworkin demanded different versions of egalitarianism. What all these thinkers had in common was the idea that reasonable people will converge on a shared conception of what justice requires. In this view, politics isn’t a rough-and-tumble in which rival interests and ideals contend with one another unceasingly, but a collective process of deliberation that leads to a common set of values. Some such vision seems to have possessed Ed Miliband, until he discovered that his ideal of equality was not widely held and the parliamentary road to predistribution was closed.

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Hayek may still have lessons to teach us. The policies he recommended during the Great Depression may have been badly flawed but his insight that prosperity cannot be restored by unending expansion of debt may have some value at a time when the limits of “Keynesian” quantitative easing are becoming clear. It is in any case far from obvious that Keynes would have supported a continuation of QE once a disastrous collapse had been averted. “Keynesianism” is a confection of Keynes’s more mechanical disciples, not an indication of how this mercurially brilliant mind would have responded to our present dilemmas. Again, Hayek’s claim that nothing can be done to mitigate the impact of free markets on social cohesion was dangerously misguided. But he was right to point out that capitalism cannot be remodelled to fit some conception of an ideally fair distribution of resources. Whether any kind of social democracy can be reconciled with the anarchic energies of global markets is an open question.

Hayek may have shown the unreality of left-liberal visions of egalitarian capitalism, but it was Keynes who understood fully the vanity of liberal rationalism. In “My Early Beliefs” (1938), a talk later published as a memoir, Keynes mocked the philosophy held by himself and his friends before the First World War: “We were not aware that civilisation was a thin and precarious crust . . . only maintained by rules and conventions skilfully put across and guilefully preserved.”

Hayek watched the interwar collapse with horror, as Keynes did, and shared many of Keynes’s liberal values. What he failed to understand is that these values cannot be renewed by applying any formula or doctrine, or by trying to construct an ideal liberal regime in which freedom is insulated from the contingencies of politics.

John Gray’s latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

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

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

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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