The high cost of neoliberalism

Financial liberalisation undermines democracy, handing power to a “virtual senate” that acts on beha

In the contemporary world of state-capitalist nations, loss of sovereignty can lead to a diminution of democracy, and a decline in the ability of states to conduct social and economic policy on their own terms. History shows that, more often than not, loss of sovereignty leads to liberalisation imposed in the interests of the powerful. In recent years, the regime thus imposed has been called "neoliberalism". It is not a very good term, as the social-economic regime in question is not new; nor is it liberal, at least as the concept was understood by classical liberals. The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct attack on democracy.

The central doctrine of neoliberalism is financial liberalisation, which took off in the early 1970s. Some of its effects are well known. With the increase in speculative capital flows, countries were forced to set aside much larger reserves to protect their currencies from attack. It is striking that countries which maintained capital controls - among them India and China - avoided the worst of the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98.

In the United States, meanwhile, the share of the financial sector in corporate profit rose from just a few per cent in the 1960s to over 30 per cent in 2004. Concentration also increased sharply, thanks largely to the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton administration. By 2009, the share of banking industry assets held by the 20 largest institutions stood at 70 per cent.

Among the consequences of financialisation is the creation of what an analysis by the investment bank Citigroup calls "plutonomy". The bank's analysts describe a world that is dividing into two blocs: the plutonomy and the rest. The US, UK and Canada are the key plutonomies: economies in which growth is powered by - and largely consumed by - the wealthy few. In plutonomies, these rich consumers take a disproportionately large slice of the national pie. Two-thirds of the world's economic growth is driven by consumption, primarily in the pluto­nomies, which monopolise profits as well.

The virtual senate

Citigroup's "plutonomy stock basket" has far outperformed the world index of developed markets since 1985, when the Reagan-Thatcher programmes for enriching the very wealthy were taking off. This is a substantial extension of the "80-20 rule" that is taught in business schools: 20 per cent of your customers provide 80 per cent of the profits, and you may be better off without the other 80 per cent. Corporations recognised years ago that modern information technology allows them to identify profitable customers to whom they can provide grand treatment, while deliberately offering skimpy services to the rest, creating a form of "consumer apartheid".

Financial liberalisation also creates what some international economists have called a "virtual senate" of investors and lenders, who "conduct moment-by-moment referendums" on government policies. If the virtual senate determines that those policies are irrational - meaning that they are designed to benefit people, not profit - then it can exercise its "veto power" by capital flight, attacks on currency and other means. Take one recent example: after Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela, capital flight escalated to the point where assets held abroad by wealthy Venezuelans equalled a fifth of the country's GDP. With capital flow liberalised, governments face a "dual constituency": voters and the virtual senate. And even in the richest countries, the private constituency tends to prevail.

The Bretton Woods system put in place at the end of the Second World War was designed on the understanding that capital controls and regulated currencies would create a space for government action responding to public will - for some measure of democracy, that is. Keynes considered the most important achievement of Bretton Woods to be the establishment of the right of governments to restrict capital movement. In dramatic contrast, in the neoliberal phase that followed, the US treasury department came to regard free capital mobility as a "fundamental right", unlike such alleged rights as those guaranteed by the United Nations Universal Declaration of 1948: to health, education, decent employment and security - entitlements that the Reagan and Bush administrations dismissed as "preposterous", "letters to Santa Claus", mere "myths".

In earlier years, the public had not been much of a problem. In his definitive history of the international monetary system, the economist Barry Eichengreen observes that, in the 19th century, governments had not yet been "politicised by universal male suffrage and the rise of trade unionism and parliamentary labour parties". This meant that the severe costs imposed by the virtual senate of lenders and investors could be transferred to the general population.

But with the radicalisation of the general public during the Great Depression and the anti-fascist war that followed, this luxury was no longer available to private power and wealth. Hence, in the Bretton Woods system, Eichengreen writes, "limits on capital mobility sub­stituted for limits on democracy as a source of insulation from market pressures". It is only necessary to add the obvious corollary: with the dismantling of that system from the 1970s on, functioning democracy was restricted.

Real choices

In Latin America, specialists and polling organisations have, for some time, observed that the extension of formal democracy was accompanied by an increasing disillusionment about democracy and a lack of faith in democratic institutions. A persuasive explanation for these disturbing tendencies was given by the Argentinian political scientist Atilio Boron, who pointed out that the new wave of democratisation in Latin America coincided with neoliberal economic "reforms", which undermine effective democracy. The phenomenon extends worldwide, although it appears that the tendency may have reversed in recent years, with departures from neoliberal orthodoxy.

The annual polls on Latin American opinion by the Chilean polling agency Latinobaró­metro, and their reception in the west, are interesting in this respect. Few elements of the reigning western orthodoxy are upheld with more fervour than the view that Chávez is a tyrant dedicated to the destruction of democracy. The polls are therefore a serious annoyance that have to be overcome by the usual device: suppression.

The November 2007 poll had the same irritating results as in the preceding few years: Venezuela ranked second behind Uruguay in satisfaction with democracy and third in satisfaction with leaders. It ranked first in the assessment of the current and future economic situation, equality and justice, and education standards. True, it ranked only 11th in favouring a market economy but, even with this flaw, overall it ranked highest in Latin America on matters of democracy, justice and optimism, far above the US favourites Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Chile.

The Latin America analyst Mark Turner has written of an "almost total English-speaking blackout about the results of this important snapshot of [Latin American] views and opinions". He also found the usual exception: there were reports of the finding that Chávez is about as unpopular as Bush in Latin America, a fact that will come as little surprise to those who are familiar with the bitterly hostile coverage to which the Venezuelan president is subjected in the media, not least (and this is an odd feature of this putative dictatorship) in his country.

In the US, faith in institutions has been declining steadily. It is interesting to compare recent presidential elections in the richest country in the world and the poorest country in South America, Bolivia. In the 2004 US presidential election, voters had a choice between two men born to wealth and privilege, who attended the same elite university, joined the same secret society where privileged young men are trained to take their place in the ruling class, and were able to run in the election because they were supported by pretty much the same conglomerations of private power. Their announced programmes were similar, consistent with the needs of their primary constituency: wealth and privilege.

By contrast, in the December 2005 election in Bolivia, voters were familiar with the issues: control of resources, cultural rights for the indigenous majority, problems of justice in a complex multi-ethnic society and many others. They eventually chose Evo Morales, someone from their own ranks, and not a representative of narrow sectors of privilege. There was real participation, extending over years of intense struggle and organisation.

Election day was not just a brief interlude for pushing a lever and then retreating to passivity and private concerns, but one phase in ongoing participation in the workings of the society. The comparison, and it is not the only one, raises some questions about where democracy promotion is most needed.

Latin America has real choices, for the first time in its history. The usual modalities of imperial control - violence and economic strangulation - are much more limited than before. There are lively and vibrant popular organisations providing the essential basis for meaningful democracy. Latin American and other former colonies have enormous internal problems and there are sure to be many setbacks, but there are promising developments as well. It is in these parts of the world that today's democratic wave finds its basis and its home. That is why the World Social Forum has met in Porto Alegre, Mumbai, Caracas, Nairobi, not in northern cities, though by now the global forum has spawned many regional and local offshoots, doing valuable work geared to problems of significance in their own regions.

The former colonies, in Latin America in particular, have a better chance than ever before to overcome centuries of subjugation, violence and foreign intervention, which they have so far survived as dependencies with islands of luxury in a sea of misery. These are exciting prospects for Latin America, and if the hopes can be realised, even partially, the results cannot fail to have a large-scale global impact as well.

Extracted from "Hopes and Prospects" by Noam Chomsky (Hamish Hamilton, £18.99)
© Noam Chomsky 2010 penguin.co.uk

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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