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20 ways to save Labour

Figures including Germaine Greer, Richard Dawkins and John Pilger suggest policies to revive Labour

Joan Bakewell
What this country needs now is a major reform of the constitution. Labour should launch a debate with the greatest speed, canvassing opinion about reform of the House of Lords, Fixed term Parliaments, proportional representation, wage rates for MPs, MEPs and Lords; We need to have a sense of a new broom sweeping away abuses and anachronisms and addressing the fundamentals of how we are to be governed. Urgency is of the essence: without it people will assume that Parliament is drifting on much as before with a few local abuses put right. There is already a sense that the days of the unbridled free market are over; it makes a natural parallel to revise our constitution at the same time. There is indeed opportunity in all this: a commitment to new thinking and open mindedness would raise the public mood. Is it too much to hope?

Germaine Greer
The Labour Party has a single asset – Gordon Brown. Brown may be a difficult character, impatient, judgmental, insecure, and often angry, but he was an able Chancellor and he is respected by the international community. The expenses shambles was neither his fault nor his responsibility, and it came at a time when he had rather weightier matters on his mind, matters that he handled with admirable dispatch, decision and courage.

The people who cut and ran from his cabinet were some of the least impressive individuals ever to be involved in the government of this country. He is better off without them.

Paul Mason, Newsnight economics editor
It's not my job to give Labour advice - but their predicament reminds me of a classic systems design problem. Computer programmers often start as follows: draw a blank circle with an arrow coming out of it, pointing to a stick figure representing a human being. The circle is your organisation; the stick figure is your customer or end-user. Next ask yourself: what does the stick figure want? Now, think of everything you would put inside that circle to satisfy the stick figure. Treat your organisation as a blank sheet of paper. Only what delivers the outcome goes in the circle; everything that does not deliver is scrapped. What lies behind Labour's crisis is: it can't decide who the stick figure represents.

Alexei Sayle
One of the central problems with politics, particularly Socialist politics as they are currently constructed, is that on a day to day basis they are incredibly boring.

This is not an accident but is a process designed to ensure that only a particular type of individual, specifically those with borderline personality disorders centred around extreme issues to do with the control and manipulation of the behaviour of others are attracted to the business of government and activism. All those with a different view are automatically locked out of the process.

One way to counter this exclusionism is to have balloons and music at all Labour Party meetings and possible an all-you-can eat buffet offered at a nominal cost. I would suggest £3.50-£4.00.

John Pilger
One specific policy change for Labour? Withdraw immediately from Afghanistan and entirely from Iraq and stop supplying arms to Israel , and demand that the regime in Tel Aviv obeys international law and gets out of occupied Palestine. At the very least, this will protect the people of this country from further 7/7 attacks.

Richard Dawkins
Stop toadying to Muslims and other “faith communities”, as part of a general abolition of all religious privilege. Withdraw government support from faith schools that abuse children by teaching them they belong to a particular religion (as opposed to teaching them about religions and letting them make up their own minds when they are old enough). Abolish the automatic right of religious organizations to charitable status, and the automatic right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords.

George Monbiot
Abandon PFI.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty
Now that the Prime Minister has survived the crisis, he can shift his attention from fire-fighting to vision-building. Voters who’ve deserted the party need positive and inspiring reasons to return and the Government has less than a year to provide them.

There can be no clearer way to take the reins and show the electorate what a Brown premiership stands for than to roll back the excesses of the War on Terror. Now finally begin to walk the walk on human rights. So much dangerous and divisive legislation is still on the statute books – destroying lives and damaging Britain’s standing in the world. Terror suspects must be brought before the courts not left to go mad under “control orders” and indefinite house arrest. Secret commissions must be abolished and our justice system given back its integrity. Anti-terror surveillance and stop and search powers need re-drafting so that they are less ripe for use and abuse against innocent (and often black) people attempting to go about their lives.

Standing before the PLP and showing humility is one thing. But how much more powerful to stand like Obama in Cairo and draw a line under the Blair/Bush saga once and for all.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive, RSA
Labour needs to do three things to get back into contention and they have to happen in the right order. First, connect – unless the Prime Minister finds a way of being listened to it doesn’t matter what he says. Second, Labour needs to say something bold and brave enough to make its plan the story not its decline. The Government might, for example, unveil a credible and progressive plan for dealing with coming reductions in public expenditure; this is certainly not easy territory for the Conservatives. Third, Labour must then, and only then, try to define the choice at the next election. The electoral pendulum may swing one more time but only if Labour wins the right to be heard.

Robert Skidelsky, biographer of Keynes
The appointment of Andrew Adonis to the Cabinet is a huge gain. He is one of the few intellectual high flyers in the government, who has shown clear thinking and tenacity in his previous education job. As Transport Minister in the Cabinet he will have extra weight to push through his big plan for high speed rail links between London and the West Midlands and Scotland. Recession is a good time to accelerate big infrastructural projects of this kind. If he can get this dedicated high speed rail line quickly approved and started before the government leaves office, it will be a splendid legacy for its final year.

George Galloway, Respect MP
Labour should adopt a commitment to introduce proportional representation for a wholly elected parliament. This is in Labour's interest given the meltdown of their vote. It would wrong foot Cameron who has set his face against fair voting. Above all, it would enable the British people to elect the progressive majority which would then support the radical change of policies on a raft of issues the British people need. Without a solid commitment to a new constitutional settlement between government and parliament and parliament and people, bringing policies voters actually want and need, Labour cannot hope to revive its fortunes.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary, PCS
My union would like to see the government, in its last year, prioritise the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, not the rich and powerful.

Towards this end, rather than withholding benefits from the poorest in society and privatising basic functions of the welfare state, the welfare reform bill should be scrapped and more emphasis placed on closing tax loopholes. This would raise extra revenue to finance decent public services, including decent pay settlements.

Proportional representation should be introduced to show serious commitment to make every person’s vote count. It cannot be right that the votes of most people are hardly relevant apart from in marginal constituencies.

It is certainly not right that in a democratic society fascists can be employed by the state to administer public services to the very people they would choose to discriminate against and victimise. Therefore we believe that the BNP and other far right group members should be banned from working in public services.

In opposition the government promised to repeal the anti-trade union laws, which shackle our trade unions. The government should honour this pledge now.

These measures would go a small way towards redressing the balance in a society which is now deemed to be more unequal than at any time since the 1960’s.

Mary Riddell, columnist
On things to undo, scrap Trident and ID cards. On things to do, devise a more humane youth justice system. Of the 3000 or so children in custody in England and Wales, three-quarters of those released reoffend within a year. This Labour government is running apprenticeships in crime. Over-use of prison costs a fortune that the taxpayer can ill-afford, puts citizens at greater risk and ruins the lives of vulnerable young people. If the Brown government is to succeed, it needs a bolder and more human face, which means tackling the difficult issues rather than just focusing on populist causes.

Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government, Oxford University
To bring forward the legislation raising the educational participation age to 18,which comes into effect in 2015, so that it has immediate effect. This will not mean that all 16 year olds stay at at school. It will mean that 16 year olds can no longer be dumped unqualified on the labour market. This is a long overdue reform, first advocated by Churchill in 1907! Its introduction now would be a valuable investment, helping to resolve the problem of youth unemployment and reducing the number of young, alienated and unemployed youths who may be tempted to vote BNP'.

Sigrid Rausing, publisher
There is one particular strength about the state of melt-down, and that is that it doesn’t matter any more how people see you. You can finally disregard opinion polls, editorials, and focus groups, because whatever you do now you are so unlikely to win the next election. There’s a certain freedom about that. It means that you can finally shed what people have disliked about new Labour for so long; the tedious and back-stabbing PR machinery, and the incessant quest for populist policies. The latter has led to betrayals, and a degree of moral loss, not least the notion that asylum seekers are the curse of Britain, deserving of nothing better than prison and deportation. Government language and actions have undoubtedly legitimised xenophobia, and made all refugees suspects, whatever hideous situation of state persecution they escaped from. Now you can close the detention centres, end the asylum dispersal policy (let refugees choose where they want to live), and allow asylum seekers to work, so that they won’t have to endure the humiliation of having to survive on £35 of supermarket vouchers a week. And get rid of all the other dubious compromises, the fakey PR language, and the curtailments of the civil liberties of terror suspects. Start answering questions rather than avoiding them – people might actually like it, and it will, in any case, make for much more interesting news programmes, which has to be a good thing.

Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim, co-directors, Institute for Public
Policy Research
The worst thing Labour can do is focus on what is needed to win the next general election, although this of course is what self-preservation demands. Short-termism is dangerous because the disconnect between politics and the people cannot be fixed with a few policy changes over the coming months; a fundamental shift in the way we do politics is required.

Labour needs a compelling vision for our future as a nation. At its heart should be a new constitutional deal - one that addresses the unequal sharing of power in society and challenges the professionalization of politics. Labour could start with establishing a Citizen's Convention, tasked with reviewing the political system. It would be made up of 150-200 ordinary citizens, selected by lot, and would take evidence at "town hall" meetings around the country and recommend options for reform. These could be voted on by parliament or by the public in a referendum. Such a move may not be sufficient to win Labour a general election, but it would secure its position as a party willing to respond to the public's distrust of politics and bold enough to take action. Ultimately this is more likely to determine Labour’s future than any short-term fix.

Lisa Appignanesi, president, English PEN
During its years in office, Labour has – in the name of security or the purportedly ‘offended’ - whittled away at that freedom which underpins all others: the right to speak, write and protest freely. I would like to see a robust statement on free expression in a bill of rights and in the statute books. This would include the freedom to discuss, scrutinize, criticize, ridicule, and express antipathy.

We need to get rid of musty laws of seditious and criminal libel, which though long dormant here, are pointed to by authoritarian regimes abroad and used to prop up their silencing of dissent.

Our civil libel laws also urgently need reform and this needs to be incorporated in policy. We’ve ended up with a regime which effectively privatizes censorship, as the recent case brought by the British Chiropractic Association against the science writer Simon Singh shows.

Rich corporates and individuals, often of little enough reputation, regularly use our libel courts to protect that reputation. We have become the libel capital of the world. Our present law is weighted so heavily against writers, is so exorbitantly expensive, that even the sniff of a possible suit is enough to quash a book or article. The law discourages argument and investigation. It silences writers, academics, publishers, serious journalists and NGOs, even where public interest can be proved.

Policy promises please.

Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor
1.Integrate the great public schools into the state system with a remit to cultivate a new tradition of meritocratic public service. Something desperately needed in this leaderless land.

2.Cancel Trident and instead launch a new programme of international nuclear disarmament. During the Cold War not renewing Trident would have seemed a crazy idea. Today it is its renewal that seems quite mad.

Clive Stafford Smith
Rather than focus on one policy, Labour needs to recall and follow the party’s founding principles instead of constantly trying to identify and appease the views of the Daily Mail. Gordon Brown might begin by giving everyone in the party (himself included) a copy of his own book, Courage, left permanently open at page 113. On that page Martin Luther King provides the catechism that should guide any politician: “Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? And vanity comes along, and asks the question is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right?” Life is much simpler than most politicians would have us believe – if a particular policy takes us a step closer to our ideal society, we do it; if not, we reject it.

Martin Kettle, the Guardian
Labour urgently needs to widen the political agenda, to re-establish its lost reputation for modernity and change and to energise its working and middle-class base. One way to achieve all three would be to learn from the Germans and rediscover one of the great missed opportunities of the 20th century by reviving the issue of industrial democracy. Labour should dust off the Bullock report of 1977 and rediscover the idea of company codetermination along German lines through works councils in every medium-sized or large business.

The financial crisis has powerfully posed the question of how good businesses should be run. Labour remains hopelessly uncertain about the answer. Works councils, the central proposal in Bullock, would put flesh on the bone of the idea that all good post-recession businesses need to focus more on their stakeholders and less on their shareholders. Industrial democracy would be part of the middle way which post-credit crunch Labour needs to navigate between the Scylla of the Old Labour union-centred agenda and the Charybdis of New Labour's too often uncritical embrace of neo-liberalism. It could take British industrial policy beyond the them-and-us world in which too many unions still remain locked and give Labour's next generation of leaders a much clearer model of what a good business should look like.

Good businesses should continually reinvest in products and their employees, not just in management and shareholder rewards as in the past, to remain competitive. So in its manifesto Labour should propose elected works councils in all businesses employing more than 500 people. It should make clear that it intends the works council and employee representation to be independent of existing union recognition arrangements, if any, and to apply in all businesses irrespective of union recognition. The fact that proposals of this kind would come extremely naturally from the mouth of Alan Johnson is a further happy coincidence for a party that wishes to turn a new page..

Neal Lawson, Chair of Compass
Interviewed after her third election victory in 1987 Mrs Thatcher was asked wasn’t it only fair that Labour had a turn next. Never she exclaimed. Then they would introduce proportional representation and the Tories would never govern again. If only. But the case for PR is not just that it stop the Tories but it transforms politics into a full and open debate about competing visions of the good society. All of a sudden every vote counts so every voice is heard. The interests of the poor and those who know our life styles can’t be in conflict with our planet are no longer drowned out by a few swing voters and two reactionary media moguls. By introducing PR politicians show they trust the people and bust open the myth that first past the post politics delivers strong government. Politics and meaningful change come from winning the battle of ideas – not pretending that 30% of the vote is a mandate to reform anything. The steam age of politics by command and control are over – we need an electoral system for the wonderfully complex, diverse and less deferential world in which we live.

Richard Gott
The anniversary of D Day is a useful reminder that Britain and Europe have been occupied by the United States ever since 1944. Their troops and military bases have never left, ensuring that Britain can never escape from the American empire. A new project for the Labour Party would be to abandon the American alliance, to leave Nato, to withdraw British soldiers from Afghanistan, to send US troops home from their British bases, and to establish a fresh foreign policy free from American entanglements. No other policy would be such a sure-fire vote-winner from across the political spectrum.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Unless something quite extraordinary happens -- and that does not mean the replacement of Gordon Brown by Alan Johnson -- Labour are going to be very heavily defeated at the next election. What's more, and from any perspective other than that of abject "loyalists" or apparatchiks, they deserve to be. For what's left of Labour the best thing would be to start right now examining the failures of the past 12 years, and to see whether an honourable radical party can be constructed out of the rubble.

Jo Glanville,Editor, Index on Censorship
Part of the mess New Labour now finds itself in is down to its half-hearted commitment to open government. True, New Labour brought in the Freedom of Information Act, which was a milestone. But it then restricted the Act with so many exemptions while obstructing the more awkward inquiries (from the Iraq war to expenses) that it is only down to the most dogged campaigning (and ultimately a good old-fashioned leak to the press) that the more sensitive information has made it into the public domain. So I would like to see a solid commitment to transparency and accountability – not least by beginning the inquiry into the Iraq war – and holding it in public. David Miliband is at this moment attempting to stop information on British intelligence’s complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed (the former Guantanamo detainee) from coming into the public domain. If he were to drop his current request for a gagging order, it would win confidence and respect.

Jude Kelly,Artistic Director, Southbank Centre
I would like Labour to Google the ‘All Our Futures Report’, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year – widely recognised at the time as both highly influential and controversial – and embrace its central principle of putting creativity at the heart of education, alongside the 3 Rs. This is not about the arts as a discipline, but about teaching the creative process and stimulating creative intelligence across every discipline – which is essential if we are going to excel in this post-industrial era. In making that commitment, Government would inevitably return to the idea that children and young people should be at the centre of everyone’s story.

David Goodhart
Gordon Brown has two huge drawbacks as a prime minister - he is no good with people close up (his colleagues) and he is no good with people at a distance (the voters). If we are stuck with him for another year we have to hope that he can indeed "do better" on the former but on the latter he should just give up and hand over almost all communication to Peter Mandelson and Alan Johnson; he should announce the date of the election (in April or May next year) and his programme of work and then retire to become the eminence grise of his own government, chairing the cabinet, meeting important people, ploughing through policy options and generally staying out of sight. On policy, some sort of constitutional reform bill is probably unavoidable - it should focus on sorting out expenses, strengthening parliament by cutting the number of ministers drawn from the House of Commons to 50 (further ministers "of all the talents" could still be drawn from outside), and laying down a referendum on the Alternative Vote system to be held at the time of the next election. Otherwise everything he does should emphasise the solid and the long-term and economic renewal - which means infrastructure, physical and social, and intelligent support for manufacturing industry as the financial sector shrinks. On physical infrastructure the two priorities are nuclear power and high speed rail links - both agreed in principle. On social infrastructure he should announce six months compulsory civic service for all 16 to 25 year olds to combat both social fragmentation and youth unemployment, plus a guarantee of at least a full time minimum wage job income for any parent who wants to stay at home with a child for the first three years of his/her life. Finally, one big symbolic thing that would change Britain for ever - move the political capital out of London, the political class might find it easier to turn over a new leaf in a new location. Start with the new supreme court, then the new House of Lords and finally the House of Commons and the monarch. Where? With the new high speed rail links it doesn't really matter. But how about Doncaster?

Peter Tatchell
Voting reform, using the Scottish Parliament election system. It would make every vote count and ensure a more representative House of Commons and government. This would boost public confidence in politics. Because the British public is mostly left-of-centre, it would keep the Tories out of power, and give Labour a semi-permanent place in government. Labour would, of course, have to rule in coalition with the Lib Dems and Greens, but this is preferable to Conservative rule. Moreover, since the Greens and Lib Dems are more left-wing than Labour, they would have a progressive, radicalising influence on a Labour-led coalition government.

Interviews by Sophie Elmhirst and George Eaton

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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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