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Jeremy Corbyn: “I think we have to think in terms of the disillusioned who didn’t vote”

Can Jeremy Corbyn really lead the Labour party? NS editor Jason Cowley meets the potential leader to talk campaigns, the media, and how he'd handle PMQs.

I was instructed to meet Jeremy Corbyn in a café at the Royal College of General Practitioners, close to Euston Station in London. I had asked for as much time as possible with Labour’s 66-year-old man of the moment but his aides had offered “no more than half an hour”. Three weeks earlier I would probably have been granted three hours in his company. Three months ago, when Corbyn was deemed to be little more than a stubborn, if principled, relic of Benn-era Labour politics, he would have been an unlikely candidate for a New Statesman interview, so predictable seemed his oppositionism and so complete his irrelevance.

But now, with the Labour Party traumatised by election defeat and “Corbynmania” gripping the left, the Islington North MP is inundated with requests for media interviews. Even his closest aides accept he could win the Labour leadership, having begun the contest merely content that their man had secured the necessary 35 MPs’ nominations to make it through to the final four.

“Things have gone crazy,” said a breathless member of his campaign team, which is being funded by Unite and other unions. “We weren’t able to give any time to the Financial Times and we could only give the Mirror five minutes on the phone.”

In the event, Corbyn, a veteran of the Stop the War Coalition, the anti-apartheid struggle and CND, arrives 30 minutes late for our meeting. With him is Simon Fletcher, a former chief of staff for Ken Livingstone who also worked for Ed Miliband as  a go-between with the unions. Fletcher is an old friend of the New Statesman and I assent when he asks to sit in on the interview, which ends up lasting 14 minutes longer than expected, before Corbyn is hurried away to catch a train to Bristol. (He actually missed his train because, as I learn later, he was mobbed at Euston by young fans wanting to have selfies taken with him. Such are the perils of being the flag-carrier for the radical left in Labour’s excessively protracted and increasingly bizarre leadership contest.)

We meet two days after a YouGov poll for the Times has confirmed what we had reported on our Staggers blog: that Corbyn, who began as the 100-1 outsider, leads the contest to be the next leader of the Labour Party. “I’m really enjoying it,” he says as he orders a mid-afternoon cappuccino. “Who wouldn’t enjoy it? It’s fascinating, the latent thirst that was out there for serious debate and serious politics.”

He pauses. “Oh, look, there I am in black and white.” He glances at a wall-mounted television screen on which a report about him is being broadcast on one of the news channels. I peer at Corbyn and then at Corbyn peering at himself on the screen – and the effect is disorienting, as if I have stumbled into some kind of parallel world in which this survivor from Labour’s most bitter conflicts in the Eighties has re-emerged as a serious leadership contender. But this is no hoax: it’s really happening – and in and to a Labour Party that seems to have lost all confidence and sense of purpose, having endured the disastrous leadership of Ed Miliband, and been routed in Scotland and defeated in England.

There is nothing smug or triumphalist in Corbyn’s manner. He is quietly spoken and, unlike other leftist renegades such as George Galloway or Ken Livingstone, unshowy. He is wearing an open-necked white shirt (beneath which is visible a thin-rimmed vest of the kind my paternal grandfather, a London bus driver, used to wear, even on the warmest days, under his stiff-collared, starched shirts) with one of his trademark beige canvas jackets. His grey hair and beard are clipped short. He looks pale and tired and has a heavy cold, which has deepened his voice. He resembles nothing so much as a red-brick sociology lecturer, circa 1978.

Because of his cold, I ask if the campaign is becoming too much for him. “Not at all,” he says. “I have put the case for anti-austerity economics. I’ve put the case for the kind of anti-Trident peace view of the world and I’ve put the case for Labour being a bigger, more community-based party, and it’s been very interesting the discussion we’ve had at the forums – sorry, the hustings.”

Most of the hustings have been oversubscribed and after each one Corbyn holds his own, separate event. “We went to the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival [in Dorset] on Sunday after the London hustings and I wasn’t part of the main stage because the TUC are strictly neutral on this. But after the festival had finished we had our own event outside the Unison tent and we had 3,000 people there.”

Among his many ardent supporters is Richard Burgon, who was elected MP for Leeds East in May. “I was one of the first MPs to nominate him and I’m proud to have done so,” Burgon told me. “Jeremy has enthused tens of thousands of people who were sick and tired of the same old, same old Westminster bubble politics.”

Burgon denied that the Labour intake of 2015 is more left-wing than its predecessors. “There are a range of views among the new MPs. What I would say, though, is that most of us aren’t in thrall to outdated Blairism.” Corbyn, he said, is “not the favourite to win but he can win”. “It’s all to play for. The political establishment and parts of the media are out to get him. They don’t want people to opt for real change.”

***

Jeremy Corbyn was born in 1949 in Chippenham, Wiltshire, and attended Adams’ Grammar School in Shropshire, followed by North London Polytechnic, from which he dropped out, never completing a degree. His parents – his father was an electrical engineer and his mother a maths teacher – were both peace campaigners, as their son would become, too. Corbyn has at various times worked as a journalist, teacher, union official and councillor. In many ways he conforms to a north London leftist stereotype: ascetic and parsimonious, he is a vegetarian, does not drink alcohol, has his own allotment and does not own a car. His brother, Piers, is a controversial weather forecaster and climate-change denier. Corbyn has been married three times – his present wife is a Mexican, Laura Alvarez, who imports fair-trade coffee – and it has been widely reported that his second marriage ended because his then wife wanted to send one of their three sons to a selective grammar school, as indeed she eventually did. The truth, I was told, was more complicated, as marriage break-ups inevitably are.

How seriously should one take the Corbyn surge? There is certainly much enthusiasm for his uncompromising socialism among the young – “the more we hear about Jeremy Corbyn . . . the more people seem to like him”, wrote the NS blogger Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett – and among many former Labour supporters who became disaffected with the party during the Blair years. “Today,” another New Statesman contributor wrote to me, “I paid money over to Labour for the first time since I was a party member in the early Nineties. Why? Because Jeremy Corbyn has given me hope that the party can return to its roots.”

But which roots are these? From its earliest beginnings, Labour has been an uneasy coalition of socialists and social democrats, of radicals and pragmatists, of workers and professors. It has always sought accommodation with rather than aspiring to replace capitalism. Yet, along the way, there have inevitably been ruptures and splits. In 1951 Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman resigned from the Attlee government because they wanted the party to “Keep Left”.

But how left does left need to be?

A serial rebel, Jeremy Corbyn has spent much of his long career since he was elected to the Commons in 1983 defying the party whip. Throughout the Eighties he was close to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in Sinn Fein; and, as a vigorous opponent of what he calls “Israel’s occupation policies”, he has nurtured alliances with the Islamist terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah. “Look, you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody,” he says now.

He supports the abolition of the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent (“nuclear weapons are immoral”) as well as withdrawal from Nato (“I’d rather we weren’t in it”) – issues that contributed to the Labour split in 1981. A hard Eurosceptic, he told me he had not “closed his mind” to Brexit – so I was slightly surprised to read on 29 July that he had issued a statement arguing that Britons should not “walk away” but “fight together for a better Europe”.

“Taken slightly historically, the turning point in the EU was actually the Single European Act, the Thatcher/Maastricht-era stuff, which was turning the EU into very much a market system,” he says. “Setting up an independent European Central Bank, which then promotes the euro, and I think the sheer brutality of the way they’ve treated Greece, makes me question an awful lot. The other side of it is, I think, that Labour should be making demands about working arrangements across Europe, about levels of corporate taxation across Europe. There has to be agreement on environmental regulation . . . Why are we leaving it all to [David] Cameron, to put together a statement, when he’s had no negotiations with anybody?”

He returns to the plight of Greece. “Look at it another way: if we allow unaccountable forces to destroy an economy like Greece, when all that bailout money isn’t going to the Greek people, it’s going to various banks all across Europe, then I think we need to think very, very carefully about what role they [the EU] are playing and what role we are playing in that.”

He is a republican, but abolition of the monarchy can wait, because “my priority is social justice”. He supports the removal of the charitable status of independent, fee-paying schools (“I’m not saying we’re going to get rid of them straight away”) and he would force state-funded academies and free schools to return to local authority control (“I would bring them back into the orbit of local education authorities”).

***

Corbyn knows what he knows and has known it for as long as he’s been in politics: he articulates his strident positions without stridency but also without compromise, and he seems comfortable in his own skin as Ed Miliband never did.

Miliband’s public performances were invariably tortured, as he triangulated and equivocated. For whatever reason, he never successfully reconciled the radicalism of his rhetoric about “predator capitalism” with the incrementalism of his retail policies; his cerebral style of book-learned Hampstead socialism with the pragmatic need to convince the electorate that he and his party could be trusted to run the economy more efficiently and effectively than the Tories.

By contrast, Corbyn is an unembarrassed advocate of big-state socialism – high taxes on business and the rich, public ownership of the railways and essential utilities, strict regulation of markets, the abolition of tuition fees, a benign, non-interventionist foreign policy and so on – and is happy to speak of the influence of Marx on his political thought.

As you listen to him, it can all seem so gloriously uncomplicated, as if socialism in one country were eminently achievable, even in age of integrated global capitalism. It’s hard not to respect his conviction and candour even if you disagree with his policies. His zeal and confidence contrast markedly with the caution of Yvette Cooper and the opportunism of Andy Burnham, who this past week joined in the chorus of Labour self-flagellation by announcing that the party today would never have been able to establish a national health service.

The changes to the rules under which Labour elects a leader – implemented by Ed Miliband as part of a new settlement with the unions to diminish the power of the block vote – means that anyone who registers as a supporter and pays £3 has a vote in the leadership contest. Under the revised rules, which have reduced the role and influence of MPs, the party has made itself vulnerable to entryism and outside manipulation. Unite, which supports and funds Corbyn, is also working assiduously, using phone banks to encourage its members to register as “affiliated” supporters so that they can vote in the contest – for Corbyn, no doubt. Leading members of the shadow cabinet such as Chuka Umunna have said that they would not serve under Corbyn. Meanwhile, the Tories are sitting back and watching all of this unfold with ill-concealed delight. Labour has not felt this divided since the early Eighties, when moderates from the right of the party broke away to form the SDP.

***

The radical left likes to convince itself that Labour lost in 2015 because it was not sufficiently socialist, as if the people of England are yearning for a more egalitarian society, if only the right leader would emerge. Yes, 50 per cent of Scots voted in May for the SNP, which positioned itself to the left of Labour and won 56 of the 59 Westminster seats; but Scotland, in the grip of nationalist fervour, has become an altogether different country from England, which is why so many Scots want to end the Union.

So, how does Corbyn propose to win in southern England and the Home Counties? I remind him that, south of the metaphorical Severn-Wash line, excluding London, Labour holds 11 out of 197 seats. But he says: “Let’s erase the line for a moment and talk about the whole of Britain, where 36 per cent of the electorate didn’t vote . . . the registration system mitigates against young people registering. And so I think we have to think in terms of the disillusioned who didn’t vote. We can grow the electorate: the Obama strategy, actually, that’s a lot of what Obama did.

“Secondly, is it wrong to appeal to every­one and say, ‘Actually, your society and your interests are better served if we have a fully comprehensive wraparound health and adult social-care service, if we have a comprehensive benefits system that doesn’t subsidise low wages and high rent; but instead, we do something about both of those things,’ and that we have a strategy which actually removes the worst vestiges of poverty in Britain? I don’t know about you. You travel around a lot, I’m sure, as I do, it’s absolutely – I’ll put this in black and white now – it’s absolutely disgusting, the level of serious poverty in Britain.”

I ask Corbyn if he is serious about winning. He smiles. “We’re doing this as a serious point, and it’s a serious operation and it’s going very well. I’m putting forward a different economic agenda. And my strong view is that we lost in 2015 particularly, but also in 2010, because essentially we were offering people slightly less hardship than the other side was offering people. It wasn’t very attractive to a lot of Labour voters. Compounded by the vote on the welfare bill, this has put Labour on the wrong side of the feelings not just of the people on benefits or who might be on benefits but a lot of other people who think, ‘Actually, there’s a lot of poverty in our society, which the Labour Party should be concerned about.’”

Does he fear the party could split if he won the leadership, especially as he would have to command the kind of loyalty from colleagues that he has never shown?

“Well, loyalty is about the party and the movement . . . if you want a better and more effective party, we’ve got to open ourselves up much more to our membership and our supporters. And that is what has happened in this election. It’s much more open than any previous contest . . . I think a lot of the people who have joined the party since the election – I’ve met a lot of them – are anti-austerity. They’re people who have joined to do something. Maybe they saw also that the other, very small left parties like Respect and Left Unity just didn’t get anywhere.”

How would he feel about being leader of the opposition? Would he have the stamina to take on David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, week after week?

“I’ve got lots of stamina, don’t worry about that. I cycle every day – it’s OK.”

He wouldn’t win and then resign? “Why would I do that? Who says that? There have been some amazing statements that have come out about me in the past few days. Apparently people know what’s going on in my mind so I don’t need to think any more. I just read the papers.

“Listen, if we win this election, we’re in it for the long run.”

So he’d fight the general election in 2020?

“Well, let’s take one thing at a time. We haven’t been elected yet. We might not be. But I hope the party would want to hold together and I’m sure it would. I hope the party would recognise that the most democratic election we have held has produced an important result and has mobilised more importantly a very large number of people. I’ve never seen so many people at Labour Party meetings.”

We digress briefly to discuss George Galloway of the Respect Party. In March 2012, when Galloway won Bradford West in a by-election from Labour, Corbyn tweeted his support for his old friend even though he had defeated a Labour MP – but now he says they are no longer close. “No doubt George and I will come across each other somewhere . . . I thought the tactics he used against our candidate [Naz Shah, who won Bradford West back for Labour in May] were appalling. I was quite shocked; it was appalling.”

Simon Fletcher interjects. Our time is up and Jeremy Corbyn has a train to catch. Before departing, he says: “I have an issue with the New Statesman. In 1968, when
I was living in Jamaica, I sent a poem to the Statesman for publication. I never heard ­anything for months – and then it was eventually rejected.”

Would he like me to publish the poem, I ask?

“Yes, I would,” Corbyn says. He seems pleased and his shrewd eyes brighten.

Fletcher intervenes. “We’d better see what’s in it first,” he says, and then, gesturing towards the street, he leads his man away. On the nearby television screen, a clip from a recent Labour leadership hustings is being replayed. The camera closes in on Corbyn as he gestures and expounds. He seems suddenly everywhere – an unspun, pre-internet politician who has become an unlikely icon of the social media age, an inspiration to the idealistic young, nothing less than the man who would be leader of the British left. But here’s the question: can the surge last?

 

Q&A: Scotland, Israel and WikiLeaks

Jason Cowley Your favourite Tory MP?

Jeremy Corbyn Well, there have been a lot of them. The most amusing is Peter Tapsell. He was just totally historic. He said he had been in parliament so long, he kind of knew it all. I mean, I’ve obviously known a very large number of them. Often extremely patriarchal, right-wing Tories.

NS And favourite Labour MP?

JC Over the years? Well, it would have to be Tony Benn. Because he was an original thinker, and also I think very bravely published his diaries, which showed his developing original thought. And yeah, he got the most amazing attacks and was ridiculed throughout his life but ended up a much-loved, old-school institution. Tony was a legend, in many, many ways.

NS The historical figure you most admire?

JC In Britain or anywhere? That’s a very tough question. Well, there are so many. I think in English history a very interesting character is John Lilburne. Very interesting character, because of the way he managed to develop the whole debate about the English civil war into something very different. And there is a report that I can’t find any proof of one way or the other, that in late 1648 he had a three-day parley with Cromwell at the Nag’s Head in Islington. I can’t find the record of it. But I wish I could get it. Then I could get a plaque put up for it.

NS Is there a historical figure you most identify with?

JC The historical figure that I would seek to identify with is probably Salvador Allende, because I think he was a very interesting guy in many ways. Very thoughtful, deep man.

NS Did you meet him?

JC No, no. I’ve met many people in Chile but unfortunately not him. He was brought down by the CIA, with the help of the British.

NS Do you support Scottish independence?

JC I think they’ve got the right to a referendum if they want one. I would be much happier if they had their autonomy in the way they’ve got it now.

NS Do you still support Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks fame? Do you still think he’s “imprisoned” in the Ecuadorean embassy in London?

JC He’s taken himself into the embassy because he felt that, had he been taken back to Sweden, he would be taken forcibly to the US. The Swedish are unclear about what would happen to him in Sweden. I think it would be much better if the Swedish authorities investigated the case against him, decided whether there was a case for a prosecution or not, and dealt with it that way, while guaranteeing that under no circumstances would he be extradited to the US.

NS Would you abolish the charitable status of public schools?

JC I would look at that, yes. It’s very difficult to do, and I’m not into saying we’re going to get rid of them all straight away. I want to empower local education authorities much more. I’m actually more worried about the role of free schools and academies, which are largely unaccountable.

NS Are you worried about entryism from the far left?

JC I would want the registered supporters to become party members. I am of the view that we should lower the membership fee and increase the membership.

NS Would you abolish the monarchy?

JC Listen, I am at heart, as you very well know, a republican. But it’s not the fight I’m going to fight: it’s not the fight I’m interested in. I’m much more interested in rebalancing our society, dealing with the problems, protecting the environment.

NS Do you regret seeking to build alliances with Hezbollah and Hamas and other terror groups?

JC Look, you don’t make peace unless you talk to everybody . . . There has to be a conversation. Over Hezbollah and Hamas, yes, I’ve met [the Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal. I’ve met people from all these groups, actually, with a number of other people; Tony Blair has [too].

NS Do you support Israel’s right to exist?

JC Yes.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge