Show Hide image

Labour's Crisis

Labour is in the middle of its gravest crisis in 30 years. It needs to rediscover the radicalism tha

The Labour Party has faced two periods of real crisis since 1900 and now stands on the verge of a third. The first followed the crash of 1929, when the second Labour administration collapsed and Ramsay MacDonald formed the National Government. The second came with the party's defeat in 1979, the ascendancy of neoliberalism, or Thatcherism, and Labour's possible eclipse by a new third party in the early 1980s. If the decline in Labour's fortunes since 1997 continues, a third crisis will occur after next year's election. It took nearly 15 years for Labour to return to power after the first two crises and the resulting election defeats of 1931 and 1983. The stakes could not be higher.

We have lost many millions of voters since 1997. We have lost hundreds of thousands of members. We have become reviled by younger generations that view us as the party of the Establishment, war and insecurity. Our orthodoxy has defeated our radicalism. We speak a desiccated language of targets; our story, our essential ethic, has been lost on the altar of the focus group. We have retreated into what is essentially a Hobbesian utilitarianism, which considers self-interest as the only guiding principle. Alan Milburn recently described our goal as being to equip people to "earn and to own"; aspiration is reduced to a notion of acquisition. Materialism is all we have; we have lost the bright hope of building a different society.

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson once said that "hope is the basic ingredient of all vitality". At such moments of crisis and uncertainty, Labour often turns to its founding figure, Keir Hardie, for hope. But he has become a myth rather than a historical figure. We tend to look to him for reassurance, rather than to ask awkward questions. Hardie inspired total devotion. On his death, he was described as the "Member for Humanity"; Sylvia Pankhurst (a friend and onetime lover) simply saw him as the "greatest human being of our time". He was worshipped among the grass roots. Some considered him, literally, to be a prophet.

At the same time, however, many thought him an extremist, impossible, unreliable and ill-disciplined. T D Benson of the Independent Labour Party said Hardie was, "by his very nature, incapable of working with a party". At times he was isolated, and even resembled an outcast. His socialism belonged to a larger canvas than the day-to-day parliamentary grind. As his biographer, the historian Kenneth Morgan, states: "For a man of Hardie's poetic, intuitive temperament, this unheroic, constructive labour was not enough. Beyond the day-to-day tactics there was a profound political, moral and emotional cause to be defined and fought for."

It was this crusade and its associated idealism that inspired such hope and vitality among the party at large. With Hardie, it was not the detail of the policy or programme that was Labour's true ideal; it was the "creed of fraternity and equality" - what type of society it sought, rather than the tactical calculus of Westminster. Certainly, Hardie was a man of contradictions. He was born into the working class, but he was never truly a part of it. Indeed, he didn't properly fit in anywhere in society. He was never a social conservative, but bohemian in his dress and a dedicated supporter of feminism and Welsh­nationalism - the red dragon and the red flag. His nonconformism made him a brilliant alliance-maker and political pragmatist.

From his return to the House of Commons in 1900, Hardie became, as Morgan describes it, "the prophet of radical socialism in its highly distinctive Merthyr form". This was a composite socialism emerging out of the distinct arc of Merthyr history, of early Chartism and the 1868 election of the pacifist Henry Richard, of the trades council movement in Merthyr and Aberdare, of the miners and the 1898 six-month strike, of its Christian traditions with its "social gospel" and, later, of the ILP. Cumulatively, it forged a non-doctrinal, working-class culture and movement; an ethical socialism that owed little to science - of neither right nor left - but much to the politics of progressive alliance.

What can this Hardie of contradictions teach us today? Like Robin Cook much later, he was never a "Labour man", at home in the party. He understood that a party must give shape to a class and a class must create a party in its image - and that this involves an interdependence of feeling and thought. In contrast to the muscular secularism growing in the modern Labour Party, he expressed this in religious terms borrowed from Tennyson: "Ring out the darkness of the land,/ Ring in the Christ that is to be."

He spoke in an almost messianic language to the people, and mirrored back to them a sense of their value and their capacity to change society. He gave them esteem, confidence and belief. In return, they gave him love and loyalty. David Farrell, an ILP member, wrote to him: "I have more love and reverence for you than I have for my own father."

Yet Hardie was much more than a great communicator. He was also a great political strategist, willing to make alliances to advance the goal of working-class emancipation. His socialism was never rigid, doctrinal or dogmatic. By 1903, he had come around to forming an electoral coalition with the Liberals, with the ILP as its backbone. Later, as party leader, Hardie worked with Sir Charles Dilke - unofficial chair of the "social radicals" on the Liberal side - on labour issues. Even at the two elections of 1910, he maintained support for the alliance with the Liberals. Yet by 1912 he had badly fallen out with them, following the brutal industrial disputes and state responses at Tonypandy and Aberdare. His conditional, contingent relationship with progressive liberalism was a hallmark of his tactical brilliance.

Although we celebrate Hardie as the founder of the Labour Party, he also operated in the space between competing variants of liberalism: its radical, individualistic strands and a more collectivist social liberalism. A similar debate is emerging in the Labour Party today. Thinkers such as Will Hutton, Richard Reeves and Philip Collins argue that Labour should return to its ancestral roots and draw inspiration from the ideas and principles of British liberalism. Yet the liberalism they seek to rehabilitate is narrow and individualistic.

Many of the first generation of Labour leaders, like Hardie, had been active in the Liberal Party of William Gladstone and had broken with it only reluctantly. Their aim was not to repudiate the liberalism of their youth, but to realise its goals of human freedom and emancipation in the new and more challenging conditions of industrial capitalism.

Liberalism encompasses a broad range of ideas and beliefs, not all of them reconcilable. The writer and academic Mark Garnett has identified two rival modes of liberal thought, one "fleshed out", the other "hollowed out": "The former retains a close resemblance to the ideas of the great liberal thinkers, who were optimistic about ­human nature and envisaged a society made up of free, rational individuals, respecting themselves and others. The latter, by contrast, satisfies no more than the basic requirements of liberal thought. It reduces the concepts of reason and individual fulfilment to the lowest common denominator, identifying them with the pursuit of short-term material self-interest. For the hollowed-out liberal, other people are either means to an end, or obstacles which must be shunted aside. Instead of equality of respect, this is more like equality of contempt."

This tension runs through liberal thought from Adam Smith to the present day. In its extreme laissez-faire variant, classical liberalism assumes a model of human behaviour as rational, acquisitive and ruthlessly self-interested. Its "fleshed-out" form was developed by the idealist philosopher T H Green, and taken up by L T Hobhouse and J A Hobson. Green rejected the atomistic individualism that sees human beings as impermeable, self-contained units enjoying natural rights but owing no corresponding social obligations. Instead, he saw society and the individuals within it as fundamentally interdependent: "Without society, no persons; this is as true as that without persons . . . there could be no such society as we know."

This New Liberalism departed significantly from many of the precepts of classical liberalism. The New Liberals believed in progressive taxation to compensate for the unequal bargaining power of the marketplace and to pay for pensions and other forms of social security. They advocated the common ownership of natural monopolies and vital public services. They viewed property rights as conditional, not absolute, and subject to certain public-interest restrictions. They called for the limitation of working hours and new regulations to guarantee health and safety in the workplace. They stood behind the vision of a co-operative commonwealth built on explicitly moral foundations. As Hobhouse said: "We want a new spirit in economics - the spirit of mutual help, the sense of a common good. We want each man to feel that his daily work is a service to his kind, and that idleness and anti­social work are a disgrace."

Hobhouse described himself as a liberal socialist and, unlike Mill, he meant it unambiguously. Hobson and several other New Liberals went a stage further and joined the Labour Party. Indeed, Green, Hobhouse and Hobson are rightly considered to be pioneers of the British tradition of ethical socialism. Their influence over the leading Labour intellectuals of the early 20th century - R H Tawney, G D H Cole and Harold Laski - was both profound and freely acknowledged.

Implied in the move to uncover and reconnect liberal traditions in our party is the view that the foundation of an independent Labour Party with a distinctively socialist outlook was a historic wrong turning, and that the progressive left would have been better off devoting its energies to building an enduring electoral base for a strong and reformed Liberal Party. This conclusion is not stated openly, but is implicit in much contemporary discussion. Hardie, however, would have been appalled. And so should we today.

If New Labour, at its best, embodied the high aspirations of fleshed-out liberalism, its restricted understanding of the scope for change betrayed the cynical assumptions of its hollowed-out alter ego. New Labour talked quite rightly about the need for the party to broaden its appeal to win the support of "aspirational" voters, but equated aspiration with nothing more than crude acquisitiveness - to "earn and to own" indeed.

In that New Labour bible, The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould made a revealing distinction when he described his parents as having "wanted to do what was right, not what was aspirational". This betrays a fundamentally neoliberal mindset, and is quite an extraordinary statement of what we think people aspire to. The possibility that that which is right and the aspirational might overlap, even minimally, was never entertained.

As the late G A Cohen argued (see page 26), the problem is one of design. The technology for giving primacy to our acquisitive and selfish desires already exists in the form of a capitalist market economy. But we have not yet adequately devised the social technology capable of giving fullest expression to the generous and altruistic side of our personality. That is the main task of any future left.

Ethical socialism offers a materialist politics of the individual rooted in the social goods that give meaning to people's lives: home, family, friendships, good work, locality and imaginary communities of belonging. It is this framework that has inspired the Labour Party at its best,transcends the sterile orthodoxies of both left and right, and remains the cornerstone of radicalism in the party. It is captured in the genius of Hardie as socialist, strategist, radical and liberal. It is built around a fundamentally different conception of the human condition from that of neoliberalism.

Echoing the words of Hardie, Tawney's essay "The Choice before the Labour Party", even though written in 1932, remains the best analysis of the crisis facing Labour today. It was written at the height of Labour's first real crisis, and highlights the dilemma at the heart of the party: the tension between orthodoxy and radicalism, the whole exacerbated by a lack of core belief.

Each of these crises has been blamed on external events, not least epochal, historical transformations driven by economic recession. But we shouldn't forget Labour's inability to resolve its internal contradictions; historically, it has been not so much a broad church as a collection of fragments in search of unity. Writing about the debacle of the Labour Party in 1931, Tawney describes how the government "did not fall with a crash, in a tornado from the blue. But crawled slowly to its doom."

Tawney's words echo down the years. "The gravest weakness of British Labour is . . . its lack of creed. The Labour Party is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could, because it does not know what it wants." He does not pull his punches. There is, he says, a "void in the mind of the Labour Party" which leads us into "intellectual timidity, conservatism, conventionality, which keeps policy trailing tardily in the rear of realities".

Hardie and Tawney were part of a tradition that gives us hope and vitality, and charts a way out of the trap of orthodoxy. Now is the time for that tradition to be rediscovered.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham. He will give the Keir Hardie Memorial Lecture in Merthyr Tydfil on 11 September

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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