Interview: Hilary Benn

He's made no enemies on his way up but does this would-be deputy leader's inoffensive demeanour mask

As we settle down on the sofa, Hilary Benn launches straight into a story about a recent visit to South Africa, where the Department for International Development is supporting a Church of England-run project in Pretoria for people with HIV/Aids. "We followed a man called Victor around and he was pulling a plastic container full of food up and down the paths in between corrugated iron walls. We knocked on one door and an old lady opened it. She is living in a room, ten foot by ten, with a dirty curtain separating her living space from where she sleeps, and she was blind." Benn explains that Victor gave the blind lady an apple, two rolls and margarine, and that he calls on her most days of the week. The lady told the British dignitary that a man had offered to concrete over her earth floor for 50 rand but had run off with the money.

The bishop and local councillor accompanying Benn prom ised she would get her concrete floor. He draws this conclusion: "Things like that remind all of us why we do this and why a lot of the things that allegedly pass for politics cannot be compared to trying to help people change their lives." It is a classic politician's story, designed to show compassion mixed with a desire to make a practical difference.

Such a response, Benn says, is another expression of the phenomenon eating at the heart of politics: cynicism. His deputy leadership campaign, he claims, is an attempt to re-inject idealism into the Labour Party and a government whose confidence has been undermined by Iraq and cash for honours. "The thing that worries me more than anything else is losing faith in the capacity of politics to change things. I don't mean scepticism, criticism, querying, but I do mean cynicism." We suggest that Labour, with its culture of spin, is at least partly responsible. "The truth is, we are partly to blame, you [the media] are partly to blame, and the culture of excessive expectation followed by inevitable disappointment is to blame," he says. "People are yearning for a politics that tells it straight: that being in government is difficult, that there are tough decisions that we have to make sometimes."

Benn likes to use the phrase "politics is not shopping", and here his political philosophy, as well his voice, resemble his father's. "Politics is not about 'I'll have a bit of this and a bit of that and in about five years' time I might shop with someone else'. Politics is a process, and there has to be a continual conversation between those who govern and those who give their consent to be governed." The Labour leadership should listen more to the members, and the members should listen more to the public. But the only specific proposal he suggests is that the position of party chair should be elected.

Asked what unique qualities he will bring to the job of deputy, he is equally vague. "We need someone who is going to offer honest advice and ensure the voice of the party is heard inside the highest reaches of government. We need someone who's going to listen and is good at working with people. And whoever gets the job, the party has got to demonstrate we are passionate about social justice."

In fact, Benn is vague on just about every policy issue we raise. We ask him about his year as prisons minister. Does he take any responsibility for the overcrowding crisis? He ducks the question, saying that there is a fundamental problem with the public's view of the effectiveness of community punishments. Even in his area of greatest expertise - education - he has no hard policy ideas, or else he is keeping them even closer to his chest than the Chancellor does. He is a champion of comprehensive education, inspired by his mother, the campaigning left-wing educationalist Caroline Benn. Educated at Holland Park Comprehensive in west London, he became education chair at Ealing Council and later worked as special adviser to David Blunkett. It might seem reasonable to expect big new ideas, but he insists on speaking in abstractions. "Like a lot of things in life, in the end it's about getting the balance right - the balance between high expectation, the right support and resources - and making sure that you tap the potential enthusiasm of the next generation."

Foreign dilemmas

Benn has been tipped for the job of foreign secretary in a Gordon Brown cabinet and the Chancellor is known to be an admirer of his work at DfID. So, it seems only right to push him on Iraq and Iran, and the theory and practice of military intervention that have so divided the left.

Benn stands by his decision to back the war in Iraq, though he says he has never thought about anything harder in his life. "In the end I voted in the way I did because I thought it was the right thing to do. I respect those who take a different view. I think if you look back over the history of Iraq - all the resolutions breached, all the slaughter that Saddam was responsible for - one of the questions we have to ask ourselves as a world is: Why weren't we more effective at dealing with it earlier?" Iraq, he says, poses a broader question. "We haven't yet found, as a world, an effective means of protecting human beings who face that kind of treatment." He lists Darfur as the latest of many dilemmas, but points to the joint mission of the UN and African Union as a positive step. Benn talks repeatedly of the need to bolster multilateral institutions, but, like so many who supported the Iraq war, finds it hard to reconcile that view with the events of 2003 in which George Bush and Tony Blair ignored the actions of the very UN inspectors who represented multilateral engagement. He then addresses a point at the heart of the anti-war case - the inconsistency of the way the world applies international norms. "We are hypocritical and inconsistent about when we choose to act, but the fundamental uncomfortable question isn't going to go away, is it?"

So we attack Iraq, but what about that other member of the axis of evil, Iran? With the Americans going down a familiar route of producing "evidence" of malfeasance, and with the British government uncomfortably saying little to deter them, we ask Benn what chances of a US or Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear installations. "You'd have to ask them. I don't think that would be the right thing to do at all. That's my view. I can speak for myself, I can't speak for others."

His answer is curt, but revealing. His awkwardness grows as we press the point. So why would military strikes not be the right thing to do in this case, if it was right against Saddam? "One, because we've got a process in relation to sanctions. Two, because there's clearly a political debate going on in Iran and I'm a very strong believer in trying to resolve those issues by dialogue and debate." But what if the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb continues? Why not intervene? "Because I'm not in favour of military action against Iran."

We give him every opportunity to leave the door open for military action and ask again: Why not intervene? "Because I'm not in favour of it." But what is the difference between Iran in 2007 and Iraq in 2003? "I think we can resolve this in a different way, because of the politics in Iran. I think that's a very, very big difference."

Gordon Brown has let it be known that he wants to develop an independent British foreign policy. He could learn a lot from Benn's work at DfID, which has often been at odds with the Bush administration. On Aids and drugs, the US approach could not be more different from the British. The Americans, influenced by the Christian right, have pursued a policy of drug eradication coupled with sexual abstinence, even influencing the UN to limit funding for needle exchanges and programmes that combine sex education with distribution of condoms. Instead, he has followed a non-moralising, "harm reduction" approach. "You've got to talk about sex, however embarrassing it is. Human beings have sex and they shouldn't die because they have sex - you should make condoms available. And you have to get treatment to people and fight stigma and discrimination because that encourages people then to be open about how to fight the disease."

He is dismissive of the American way. "Abstinence-only programmes are fine if you want to abstain, but not everybody does. Men have sex with other men and we have to work with them. Some people pay for sex: you've got to work with prostitutes. Some people, heaven knows why, inject themselves with drugs: clean needle-exchange programmes reduce the likelihood that the HIV virus is going to be passed on. It's very clear and we've just got to be straight about it."

We ask Benn for his assessment of the Bush administration. "Pretty Republican," is all he will say. Does he agree with Peter Hain's view that it is the most right-wing in living memory? "I'm not going to comment on that." Why not? "Because I don't want to. What I would say is where we agree, we work together, and where we don't agree then we say what we think." On climate change, he says the UK has opposed US scepticism about the existence of global warming. He threatens to wrestle us to the ground (metaphorically speaking) if we can come up with "a world leader who has done more to argue the case for a global agreement to tackle climate change than the Prime Minister". "It is a caricature that America just has to say, 'Britain, we want to do the following' and we say, 'Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.' It's just not true."

Hilary Benn came to parliament late, but his rise has been swift. He has made no enemies, and caused no offence. He has yet, however, to be fully tested. International Development is a good-news department. Now he is the bookies' joint fav ourite, with Alan Johnson, to succeed John Prescott as deputy prime minister. The public seems to buy his pitch that he is "a pretty straight guy". There's little reason to suggest that he would not do a good job, but if he could be persuaded to take the bold policies he developed at DfID into a wider international arena, Gordon Brown might start hoping that Benn will lose, so that he can make him foreign secretary.

Hilary Benn: The CV
Research by Sophie Pearce

Born 26 November 1953. Son of Tony and Caroline Benn
1979 Elected to Ealing Council
1983 and 1987 Unsuccessfully contests the Ealing North constituency
1986 Becomes youngest chair of Ealing's education committee
1997 Appointed special adviser to David Blunkett , Education Secretary
June 1999 Elected MP for Leeds Central. The turnout of 19.5 per cent is a postwar low
June 2001 Appointed under-secretary at the Department for International Development
May 2002 Appointed under-secretary at the Home Office
May 2003 Appointed minister of state for international development
October 2003 Promoted to Secretary of State for International Development
January 2004 George Monbiot accuses Benn's department of doing "more harm than good", for allegedly giving more "aid" to the Adam Smith Institute than to Liberia or Somalia
May 2005 Re-elected MP for Leeds Central
March 2006 Disowns parliamentary aide Ashok Kumar after Kumar calls for Tony Blair to stand down
September 2006 Withholds £50m payment to World Bank in protest at conditions attached to aid for poorer countries
October 2006 Announces candidacy for deputy leadership 25 years after his father, Tony, fought and lost the same contest

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack

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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