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The dying of the middle-class dream

Millions of households have suffered a fall in living standards in these past few years. So when the politicians are seen to collude in what feels like a rip-off . . .

All of British politics since the end of the Second World War has been underpinned by a double promise. The first element is collective – every generation will live better than the one before it. The second component is individual – any citizen’s hard work will be rewarded with wealth and higher social status.

In the US, the equivalent offer is explicit in the idea of an “American dream”. In Britain, we are more reticent about expressing the belief that self-advancement should be a fundamental right and more pessimistic about whether it extends to us. That doesn’t mean the idea lacks currency, nor does it diminish the feeling of betrayal when the contract is broken.

It is breaking before our eyes. The financial crisis did not only disrupt the longest run of economic growth in living memory; it upset assumptions about who the economy was designed to serve. The perception that a super-wealthy elite was both responsible for the crash and insulated from its consequences is profoundly demoralising. It mocks the ambition of those who feel they are working harder than ever for diminishing returns.

For millions of British households the experience of the past few years has been creeping impoverishment. Wages have been frozen or have risen too slowly to keep up with the cost of living. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, the average weekly pay packet has fallen by about 8 per cent in real terms since the start of 2008 – the peak of the boom. In the same period, while GDP per head has contracted by 7 per cent, net national income per head has fallen by 13.2 per cent.

According to a recent study by researchers at Loughborough University, the cost of a basket of essential goods and services – including food, fuel and public transport – has risen by 43 per cent in the past decade. The average domestic energy bill has roughly doubled in real terms over the same period. For many, those pressures have cancelled out material gains accrued since the turn of the century. Necessary components of family life – childcare, running a car – have become punishingly expensive for anyone living on or below the median household income, currently about £26,500 per year.

Then there is the slow burn of Britain’s housing crisis. Surveys of mortgage lenders show the average age of a first-time buyer is now 35, up from 28 in the 2000s and 24 in the 1960s. The only reason hundreds of thousands of people who already own their property are able to stay in it is that interest rates are below the long-term trend. A sudden rise could tip them into arrears. Rents are inflating in the private sector, much of which is a wild west of cowboy landlords charging extortionate rates for hovels. As for social housing, in densely populated parts, anyone not destitute enough to qualify for emergency short-term accommodation can expect to sit on a waiting list for up to ten years.

Unemployment has not soared as much as many feared in the recession, but the official numbers are buoyed by increases in part-time work and by people declaring themselves self-employed, categories that conceal meagre incomes. Roughly 1.4 million people are forced to work fewer hours than they would like. There are still about 2.5 million people jobless. Youth unemployment is hovering just below the one million mark. A mass of research shows that future earnings and self-esteem will be dented irreversibly for those young people passing their formative years in a hopeless drift.

A YouGov survey conducted last month asked voters how worried they were that “people like you will not have enough money to live comfortably” over the next two to three years. Seventy-one per cent were fairly or very worried; 28 per cent were not worried. When asked about the fear of losing their job or finding work 64 per cent said they were worried and 32 per cent were not. Those proportions were broadly the same across social categories, political allegiance, age and region.

The fall in British prosperity and optimism is not just a function of the financial crisis and recession; nor will it necessarily be reversed as economic growth returns. Wages for those in the bottom half of the income scale have been stagnant since 2003. Research by the Resolution Foundation, the leading think tank looking at trends in living standards, has found that disposable incomes for low earners fell in every region of England outside London during the period 2003-2008 – the frothiest part of the boom, when the British economy as a whole expanded by 11 per cent.

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Even in the good times, people were not as well off as they thought they were – or felt entitled to be. The state compensated for some of the shortfall with tax credits. Those are now being cut. Individuals also topped up their wages with credit cards and other private debts. That habit persists. A study by the consumer group Which? found that, this past September alone, 800,000 households took out emergency “payday loans”, often carrying extortionate interest rates. Last year, Wonga.com, a leading provider of such loans, more than trebled its profits on the previous year, up from £12.4m to £45.8m.

According to the Resolution Foundation’s analysis, even when heroic assumptions are made about a prompt bounce back to growth and rising employment, the benefits will accrue to those who, by any objective measure, are already rich. “There is a complacent view that a return to growth will be enough. That is unlikely to be the case,” says Gavin Kelly, the foundation’s director. “We know from recent history in the UK, and far longer experiences in other mature economies, that it is perfectly possible for steady growth to coincide with an era of stagnant living standards.”

This opens a new chapter in British politics. For the first time, swaths of middle-class voters, who for generations were given to understand that the system was fashioned for their benefit, feel it is rigged against them. In such a climate, the conventional messages – the appeal to aspiration and the promise to reward enterprise – ring hollow. Yet the current generation of party leaders doesn’t know any other kind of middle-class politics.

The American experience is instructive, although never wholly analogous. The US middle class has followed the same pattern of stagnant wages, shrinking opportunity and squeezed living standards but for even longer. The “Death of the Great American Middle Class” is a well-established trope in the US media, debated in newspaper op-ed pages and dissected by political scientists.

A new book by James Carville and Stan Green­berg, two veterans of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, charts the phenomenon in depth. It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! argues that the mechanisms for delivering the American dream to the average citizen – access to quality education, affordable housing, jobs that pay decent wages – have broken down.

“There’s a presumption that you will do better and better, have more disposable income and more savings, and you’ll have a decent retirement, that your kids will get a college education and be able to do better than you,” says Greenberg. “If you look at the period 1945-80, that’s what happened in America. We now know, looking back from 1980 onwards, that it largely stopped – the story is now a myth.”

I met Greenberg, a pollster and strategist who is currently advising the Labour Party, on a recent trip of his to London. We sat in a central London coffee shop discussing the parallels between the American and British predicaments. One vital distinction, he observes, is that the “middle class” in the United States is a much broader category. Those who aspire to the status automatically expect to acquire it and so pre-emptively identify themselves with it. “In the US, working-class people who are clearly not middle class by the standards we’re talking about here [in Britain] consider themselves middle class, and they do so because they believe they will have rising incomes.”

When that expectation is disappointed the result is rage. It shows itself in the banners held aloft at this year’s Democratic National Convention saying “Middle Class First” (a slogan that would invite satirical sneers about easier access to organic vegetables in the UK). It is also a force driving the rise of the radical conservative Tea Party movement. Although the Republican fringe is better known in Britain for its Christian fundamentalism, it channels a sense of betrayal at the hollowing out of the American dream – the feeling that the Washington and Wall Street elite have stolen the country from the people.

As Greenberg sees it, the common belief is that America is “hard-wired” to furnish opportunity, so if it doesn’t happen, some conspiracy is to blame. “So we end up with a morality tale – who are the bad guys that are blocking the natural forces? It’s class conflict in the context of an assumption that we just need to take away the distortions that rig the rules.”

The suspicion that government is a malign influence is then inflamed by ultra-conservative media, weaving in reactionary religious fear that liberal policy degrades the moral fibre of the nation. Greenberg’s analysis is supported by Jacob S Hacker, a professor of political science at Yale University and an important intellectual influence among those in Ed Miliband’s inner circle. “The hallmark of contemporary public attitudes,” Hacker wrote in a recent paper, “is not public conservatism but public cynicism and distrust, fuelled by the economic trend of the last generation and a sense that government is out of touch.”

That, he argues, poses a particular challenge to politicians of the left, who must decontaminate state intervention of any kind before voters can trust them again to address structural imbalances and entrenched injustices in the economy. “To rebuild the middle class requires rebuilding a sense that government can make a positive difference.”

Thus, in the US at least, the mainstream politics of class resentment, historically imagined to be a resource of the left, has been appropriated by the anti-government right. A significant observation in It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! is that the raw evidence from opinion polls shows Democratic candidates do surprisingly well when they become unapologetic in demanding that wealth be shared more equitably. Yet they are often intimidated out of pressing the point home by a received wisdom – and a well-mobilised conservative commentariat – which says that such messages are divisive, signal a drift away from the centre, represent “class war” and alienate independent voters with a whiff of socialism.

A similar dynamic operates in Britain, though much moderated because we are less hysterical about the spectre of reds under the bed. The charge of sowing interclass strife is central to Tory rebuttals of Ed Miliband’s attempt, laid out in his speech to this year’s Labour conference in Manchester, to position himself as the leader of a “one-nation” party. Conservatives leapt on Miliband’s scorn for David Cameron’s quasi-aristocratic background, Eton education and cabinet staffed with millionaires as evidence that the call for national unity disguised a return to embittered socialism. Cameron addressed the point directly in his own autumn conference speech. “We don’t preach about one nation but practise class war,” he said. “We just get behind people who want to get on in life.” In parliamentary debate, Cameron routinely uses “left-wing” as a term of derision and a byword for unelectable incomprehension of mainstream British sensibilities.

Downing Street is under no illusions that politics for the foreseeable future will be shaped by the feeling in many households that the ground is giving way beneath their feet. Senior Tories also know that they will not long get away with blaming the nation’s misfortune on the legacy of the last government. “Answering the question ‘What are you going to do about this?’ will be the dominant theme in politics for the next 30 years,” says a No 10 strategist.

Cameron’s strategy for re-election rests on the hope of reviving his party’s appeal to those lower-middle-class and working-class voters who once flocked to Margaret Thatcher’s banner. They are often identified in the Conservative lexicon as the “strivers” – driven by the will to work their way up and deeply resentful of those perceived to be gaming the system, especially through “unearned” welfare payments.

The historically emblematic policy for winning the support of these voters was the “right to buy” council houses, which held out a mass invitation of enhanced status and asset wealth through property ownership. It is far from obvious what an equivalent offer today would look like. Besides, Thatcher, the daughter of a greengrocer, was intrinsically plausible as a champion of that target demographic. David Cameron is not.

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One Conservative who is sensitive to the needs of the “strivers” is Robert Halfon, the respected MP for Harlow in Essex. It is a bellwether seat, taken from Labour in the Thatcher landslide of 1983, reclaimed in the Blair stampede of 1997 and then surrendered again in 2010. Halfon has made a name for himself in parliament campaigning vigorously and with some success against rises in petrol duties, which, he says, are pummelling what he calls the “white van” voter. “The next election will be about the cost of living,” he tells me. “People in my constituency are getting up at 5am to drive to work. They are holding down two jobs. People are suffering but they still want to get on.”

Halfon doesn’t believe that the British middle class is responsive to political attacks based on the Prime Minister’s privileged family history, arguing that they see in these stories a sneer of envy. But he recognises that the Tories in general are in danger of looking as if they stand up for the wrong people. “Not one person on the doorstep has ever commented on Cameron’s background or [his education at] Eton,” Halfon says. “What people do care about, what is a large problem for us, is that we are seen as a party of the rich. Even people who agree with us and are inclined to vote for us are hesitant about it because they wonder if we are governing for the benefit of our rich friends.”

The distinction is vital. It is unreasonable to blame Cameron for the circumstances of his birth; it is fair to challenge him over the choices he makes in power. Labour has been stung in the past trying to depict Tories as cartoon toffs. In the 2008 by-election in Crewe and Nantwich, the Conservative candidate, Edward Timpson, a Cheshire barrister from a wealthy family, was trailed by Labour activists wearing “Lord Snooty” top hats and tails. The stunt backfired when the background of the Labour candidate, Tamsin Dunwoody, was shown to be no more proletarian. The seat was lost.

Since then the climate has changed. The imposition of painful economic policy has coincided with the appearance of a prime minister who is obviously unfamiliar with toil. Even many Tories admit to irritation with their leader’s haughty manner and encirclement by a gilded clique.

Stan Greenberg, who has a detailed knowledge of opinion-poll trends, believes the Prime Minister’s personal brand has been compromised by the impression that he moves in rarefied circles, is distant from the concerns of ordinary people and fails to put their interests first. The turning point was the phone-hacking scandal, which exposed Cameron’s seamless social integration with executives from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in a kind of rolling beau monde Cotswolds garden party.

“His identity is so fuelled by who he was hanging out with during that crisis – the horseback riding [with the News International executive Rebekah Brooks], the whole set of associations, Murdoch’s back-door entry to No 10. It resonated,” Greenberg says. “He’s part of the horsey set. He’s seen to be a typical Conservative who makes choices on policy, including cutting taxes for wealthy people, while also doing a granny tax. Combine that with who he was hanging out with, and things have come together in a way that is pretty indelible.”

The resignation last month of the Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell over allegations that he told police officers to “know their place” and called them “plebs” can hardly help redeem the party’s snobbish image. Downing Street claims the episode has caused much more of a stir in Westminster than anywhere else – that it has not “cut through” to a wider audience. It is hard to find an MP from any party who believes that.

While Cameron might struggle to reassure anxious voters that he is on their side, it is not obvious that Ed Miliband will be embraced as their more authentic champion. The opposition leader’s background is rarefied, too, only in a different way. He may have gone to the local comprehensive but his cultural schooling and political apprenticeship, in the north London intelligentsia and as a young adviser to Gordon Brown, respectively, do not resemble anything like the experience of the voters he wants to woo. For most people who take little interest in what happens at Westminster, he is another well-spoken, Oxford-educated politician who has never struggled to pay the rent.

To his credit, Miliband was the first party leader to identify what he characterised as the struggles of the “squeezed middle” – the long-term, downward pressure on living standards for people on or below average incomes. He has spoken about restoring what he calls “the promise of Britain”, a deliberate emulation of “the American dream”. The phrase has not caught on.

The focus on US trends is still the right one. It isn’t just the way real incomes have fallen while growth has risen. The UK is following an American labour-market pattern in which the kinds of jobs that pay well enough to sustain a high standard of living are becoming rarer – even as overall unemployment is falling. It has been called the “hourglass effect”. In other words, there is pool of poorly paid, low-skilled jobs at the bottom, a bulge of well-paid, high-end jobs at the top and a dwindling number of semi-skilled, white-collar, clerical or managerial posts in the middle. Those are the jobs that underpin mass participation in the middle class, as a lifestyle and an identity.

In another recent book charting the decline of the US middle class, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, the author, the Financial Times journalist Edward Luce, quotes Lawrence Katz of Harvard University, one of America’s leading labour economists, on the social consequences of polarisation between luxuriant and servile wages: “We are on track to becoming a country where the top tier remains wealthy beyond imagination, and the remainder, in one way or another, are working in jobs that help make the lives of the elites more comfortable . . . They will be taking care of them in old age, fixing their home wifi, or their air-conditioning, teaching or helping with their kids and serving them their food.”

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It is conceivable that Britain will end up in a similar place. Politics in the aftermath of the financial crisis is unlike the recovery phase from previous recessions. In the past it was easy to imagine that the country was experiencing a period of temporary turbulence. Politicians just needed to advertise their credentials to navigate through it. This time is different for two reasons. First, restoring growth alone does not solve the structural flaws that disconnect the middle class from realistic attainment of its members’ ambitions. Second, the very capacity of politics to provide solutions is in question. None of the present generation of party leaders has any experience of governing at a time when the entire economic system is perceived to be a con. They all hail from a political elite that is seen as having devised the scam or, at best, colluded in it.

Hacker has identified a paradox that applies as well to the British challenge as the American one: “Progressive reform will require using a broken political system to fix a broken political system,” he writes. “The main obstacle to change and the main vehicle for change are one and the same.”

For generations, much of the British electorate has not been highly politicised. Suspicion of ideology and wariness of campaigning exuberance are features of genteel, middle-class identity. The most successful election candidates in recent decades have been those who persuaded middle-class voters – or those who aspire to be middle class – that backing their party is the predictable, respectable thing to do. Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair achieved a cultural monopoly over the non-political mainstream. They made voting for the opposition look somehow more conspicuously opinionated, a tilt towards the fringe, and therefore socially almost eccentric.

There is no candidate in British politics who can pull off that trick today. The financial crisis has ended the idea that the pursuit of a comfortable family life – “normal”, middle-class aspiration – can be automatic and politically neutral, as if decoupled from ideological choice. Already too much of a struggle for that to be the case, it is likely to become more of one and, by extension, increasingly politicised.

But how, and by whom? Not in recent memory have we seen politics in this country with a middle class radicalised by the brazen theft of its future. We may be about to find out what that looks like.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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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