Born again or Brown again?

We asked Labour insiders and commentators who should be the next leader of the Labour Party – now or

The Labour Party is in many ways already mourning its defeat at the forthcoming general election. There are still several possible outcomes to that election, but none of them is that Labour will emerge with a clear working majority. The bleak truth for Gordon Brown is that he is fighting his first and last election as Prime Minister. There is a general acceptance of this, and the mood in the parliamentary party is as resigned as it is jittery. The aim, at present, is to lose well, to expose the Conservatives and to prepare for life after Brown.

So what of the succession? Few doubt that a leadership contest is under way. The main contenders - Ed Balls, David and Ed Miliband, Harriet Harman, Jon Cruddas - may be fighting a phoney war, but it is a war of sorts all the same, with politicians on manoeuvres and the corridors and back rooms of power febrile with speculation. "The mood is very uneasy at present," one leadership contender told me. "But at least I'm prepared to speak honestly rather than relying on unattributable briefings."

Labour is deeply divided, on several levels. There are the old, obvious (and tedious) divisions between the Blairites and the Brownites - always a spurious division founded less upon ends than means. Blair and Brown were not separated by ideology: they both passionately believed in New Labour and accepted the neoliberal consensus. What separated them and their followers was character and cold ambition.

Yet, more important, surely, are the divisions between the freethinking liberal pluralists (or democratic republicans) and the unreconstructed statists in the party, as well as those between the free-market reformers and the social democrats. In recent months this magazine has begun
to campaign for a realignment of left-liberal politics. We are attracted by the idea of coalitions between progressives, especially if they result in electoral reform, genuine reform of the House of Lords and of the City, legislation for fixed-term parliaments, stronger civil liberties, an enhanced Freedom of Information Act, closer ties with Europe, a multilateral foreign policy and withdrawal from Afghanistan.

During the years of the long, unregulated boom, New Labour's high command entered into a Faustian pact with the forces of finance and with the repellent Bush administration. In so doing, the party ceased to be a moral crusade, and many of its natural supporters became alienated. They remain alienated, but without them Labour can never win again.

The economic crisis has offered Labour an opportunity to learn from the wrong turns taken in recent years, but also from what the party got right. From crisis can flow opportunity. Above all else, what is required, if the election results spell the end for Brown, is for the party to elect a leader who has the vision, ideas and stamina not only to remake his or her party, but to lead a complete reconstruction of the British political system. But who is that person? And what should his or her priorities be?
Jason Cowley

Meghnad Desai

Economist and Labour life peer
I have seen seven Labour leaders come and six go - Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith and Blair. Gordon Brown is still very much here and not likely to go before the election. The new Parliamentary Labour Party will be slim, with maybe no more than 150 members, and it will need someone who can reconcile and unite, who can think anew the theory for a 21st-century social democracy, and who can be an internationalist rather than a small Englander.

My choice for the crown of thorns? The field is two Eds and two Milibands (overlapping ­categories), Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson. Some pine for Jon Cruddas. I don't. It is not enough to be loved by the left: remember Michael Foot - lovely man, disastrous leader.

Johnson is loved by the unions, but then they loved and destroyed Jim Callaghan. Balls is unlikely to unite the party. Of the two Milibands, I go for David rather than Ed. So it is between David and Harriet. If we are to take Middle England with us, it has to be David. I say that with some trepidation, lest it harm his prospects.

Roy Hattersley

Deputy leader of the Labour Party (1983-92)
Speculating about who will be the next Labour leader is good journalism but rotten politics.

If Labour wins the next election - and victory remains within the party's power - the next leader will not take over until 2014, and four years is a long time in politics. Long ago, Jim Callaghan told me that the party would be led, in ten years' time, by David Owen, me or somebody nobody had heard of. It turned out to be somebody who, then, nobody had heard of.

After the next election but one, it will be James Purnell, Ed Miliband, Jon Cruddas - or somebody nobody has heard of. I will vote for Miliband. Each of the politicians on my "shortlist" is a genuine radical who realises the im­portance of Labour setting out its vision of the good society and describing the practical - and sometimes necessarily controversial - policies that will bring it about. Ideological caution is the certain path to defeat. Whoever first made the point, New Labour foundered because it was "neither new enough nor Labour enough". The next leader must - instead of trying to invent an alternative to social democracy - work out a way of applying its basic principles to the modern and changing world.

Sunder Katwala

General secretary, Fabian Society
More important than who should lead is how Labour could get its next leadership election right. Let's hope it takes place in government, a few years from now. But if Labour loses this spring, the first decision could be its most important in opposition: whether to have an immediate leadership contest or leave it until after the first autumn conference. If Michael How­ard had not done the latter in 2005, the Tory leader would be David Davis, not David Cameron.

If Labour goes straight for a contest, we would miss the debate we need. So let's see the merits in playing it long. If Labour loses, Gordon must stay! If he prefers to make a quick exit, the National Executive Committee should appoint a caretaker and schedule an autumn contest. It could make a real difference to the chances of being out for one term, or three. Front-runners - such as David Miliband, Ed Balls or Harriet Harman - should not fear a longer debate with more ideas. Those who might not run - perhaps James Purnell and Jon Cruddas - might sharpen debates.
Without hearing their arguments, it is too early to set the field. So why not imagine that Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper could surprise us by emerging in front, with Cooper edging home as the party's first permanent woman leader?

Melvyn Bragg

Writer, broadcaster and life peer
I'm in at least four minds as to who should be the next Labour leader. When is the law coming in that allows peers to resign from the House of Lords? Because Hamlet/Mandelson looks very fit for the part of the new prince.

David Marquand

Professor of politics at Oxford University
Assuming Labour loses the election - not yet certain, but a lot more probable than not - the party will need to skip the generation immediately after Brown's and go for someone in the generation after that. The choice will be between the Miliband brothers: David or Ed.

Clearly, this will be psychologically difficult for them. Sibling rivalry is a powerful force. Ed and David seem well-balanced and harmonious. All the same, I imagine David would find it hard to give way to his younger brother. But so what? The party will have a right to pick the better man for the job, and I don't think there's any doubt that that means Ed should be the one to go for it. He is both a safe pair of hands and a potentially inspirational figure. A very rare combination.

He would face a daunting task. I don't believe Labour has yet taken the measure of David Cameron and the new-look Tory party he has constructed. Labour politicians and Labour-friendly commentators have convinced themselves that the new-look Tories are fakes: that, like old-look Thatcherites, they are slavering at the thought of making savage cuts in spending; and that Labour in opposition will reap a rich harvest of disillusioned Tory voters without having to engage in painful rethinking of its own. I think this is self-indulgent piffle. The truth is that social democracy is on the slide all over Europe. I don't pretend to know how the left should respond to this melancholy tale. Nor, I suspect, does Ed Miliband. But he has shown that he has the intellectual capacity to think through the problems - and the charisma to lead his party in the search for answers. It would be madness to choose anyone else.

Helena Kennedy

QC and Labour life peer
I really do think it is premature to have this debate. There is a whole set of potential leaders among the next generation, and I do not want to see some has-been who is seriously tainted by his or her complicity in the Iraq war taking on the mantle as some interim measure.

If and when a new leader is required, I want to see a proper debate within the party about what that person believes in and where they will take the party in the future. Whoever succeeds in taking on the role will have to throw off the taint of many New Labour policies and be prepared to participate in a total review of policy and vision. I think Compass is where the new thinking is currently taking place, and any prospective leader with any sense should be looking closely at its work.

Neal Lawson

Chair of Compass
Jon Cruddas should be the next leader of the Labour Party, because he understands that we face a triple crisis of inequality, sustainability and democracy, and that we need a progressive alliance of parties, unions and civil society organisations to make change happen and embed it. In practice, that means the effective regulation of businesses, and measures to democratise public services, such as a high-pay commission at one end and a living wage at the other; and real proportional representation, to ensure a new era of pluralistic politics rather than the domination of a few swing voters led by Murdoch and the Mail.

Above all, a candidate such as Cruddas would bring hope back into centre-left politics; the hope that we are aiming for a good society and have the wherewithal to make it happen.

Billy Hayes

General secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU)
There is no contest - Gordon Brown. To reconnect with millions of voters lost since 2001, we need to reassert the coalition between working-class communities and liberal-minded pro­fes­sionals. First, an expansionary economic policy is vital. Shutting down the government's life support to the economy could precipitate a double-dip recession. That is where the Tories would have gone, and will go. Labour must be different - voters will appreciate this.

Second, there must be a break from policies that have fractured our electoral coalition. Scrapping ID cards, committing to withdrawal from Afghanistan and scrapping the Trident replacement and aircraft carriers would help; they would also transform the future of government spending. Third, the problems of the housing market must be addressed. The private sector will not deliver for five million on the council-house waiting list. Government support for social housing is crucial.

Robert Skidelsky

Political economist and life peer
Your question is based on the assumption that Labour will lose the next election. I don't think this is a foregone conclusion. Labour might win a small majority or form a minority government with Liberal support. In either case, Brown will stay on as leader and Prime Minister. As to his successor, I have no preference.

Labour has a great opportunity to work out a post-slump political agenda. This could be based on: a) an expanded role for the state in the investment field (railways, housing, schools, hospitals, green technology), and b) greater equality of wealth and incomes. Both would require bringing the share of GDP spent by the state more in line with the European norm, but this will be necessary anyway for purposes of fiscal consolidation and one may as well make a virtue of it. The party should set up a high-powered commission of a non-partisan character to work out an intellectually grounded post-slump programme of action. The commission should be set up as soon as possible (ie, before the election), and its existence and preliminary findings should be one of the main grounds on which the government  appeals to the country.

Billy Bragg

Musician and activist
I want a leader who will do something about excessive bonuses and who will split up high street banks from the casino banks, so that next time the bankers mess up they lose their homes and we don't lose ours.

Greg Dyke

Director general of the BBC (2000-2004)
I suspect that we are living through the final months of the last Labour government ever to have an overall majority, as, by the time Labour has another chance to govern, the political world will be very different.

I suspect wholesale change in our political system will come faster than many imagine. The decline of the two-party system has been happening for years - in 1951, 97 per cent of the electorate voted either Labour or Conservative; in the last election, that was below 70 per cent - but the MPs' expenses scandal has put the final boot into politics as we've known it. The election could well result in a hung parliament which, in turn, could bring the vast reforms we need. The introduction of proportional representation is no longer a ­matter of if, but when.

The next Labour leader will need to articulate a new left-of-centre ideology, unite the rational left, see off the Blairites and be able to negotiate with and befriend other radical parties in this new era of politics. Tough job.

Richard Reeves

Director of Demos
It is tempting to say that the next leader should be Anybody Who Is Not Ed Balls. But the party should aim higher. David Miliband is a serious candidate, but he is seen as indecisive in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and has never been hugely popular in the constituencies or the unions. James Purnell remains the lodestar for liberal modernisers - but I am biased since he is a colleague at Demos. Perhaps Liam Byrne should be the next leader: he is younger, brighter and more passionate than many of his colleagues.

The new leader should ditch the anti-civil liberties measures of Blair/Brown; come out in support of real proportional representation; form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats; support or steal the Tories' education plans; base a new attack on poverty and plans for public service reform on the "capabilities" approach of Amartya Sen; avoid new incursions against freedom in areas such as smoking and alcohol; and adopt Lib Dem tax policies hitting wealth, rather than income.

Last but not least, the new leader should surround themselves with people who will tell them when they are screwing up.

Stefanos Stefanou

Businessman and Labour donor
I think that Gordon Brown will now lead the Labour Party to the next general election. He will have a good chance of winning a small majority, but only if he reverts to being a strong, robust and determined leader, as he was when he started as Prime Minister. He is obviously surrounded by inexperienced ministers and advisers. They have managed to transform him into a person who performs for the media in a gimmicky way - that was never Brown's style.

However, if, for whatever reason, Labour needs a new leader, I think that the only person who will be able to lead and unite the party is Harriet Harman. She appears to be a strong personality, and charismatic without being a clown like Cameron. She will probably succeed, provided she doesn't allow the so-called PR experts to destroy her personality with their superficial techniques.

Frank Field

Labour MP for Birkenhead
Labour, whether it wins or loses, will be faced by a new kind of politics after the election. We will have to put behind us the modern era, when governing was largely about distributing a continual real-terms growth in public expenditure. The new politics of cuts will be centre stage, requiring leadership qualities that can combine Labour's idealism - particularly protecting those towards the bottom of the pile - with a realism that appeals to the majority. Courage will, above all, be required to mark out the political map of this new country, but with that courage must go stamina, and also judgement when taking risks in repositioning the party.

While there are a number of candidates who possess some of the necessary qualities, I see James Purnell as the one individual who combines most of them. But Labour in the new parliament will also need a deputy leader who can reach those parts of the electorate untouched by the current leadership, and who will also be trusted by our core voters as we engage that new country. Step forward, Jon Cruddas.

Bob Crow

General secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)
Who leads the Labour Party isn't the issue. What matters is that the party has presided over attacks on workers through the anti-union laws and privatisation, and through the extension of powers to the European superstate. Until Labour wakes up and starts fighting for the workers rather than the bosses, it's a dead duck, politically.

Ken Loach

Film director
Who should be leader? None of the present clique. What to do: reassert Clause Four and act on it to the letter.

Clare Short

Former Labour MP
It is very late in the day, but if part of the answer to Labour's problems is a new leader, we need an analysis of what is wrong in order to look for the kind of leader who might be able to put things right. I do not believe that anyone really knows the qualities of a politician until they have worked with them. Potential leader spotting is led by the media on the basis of unexplained qualities that appear to be completely presentational. Underneath this is a pro-Blair versus pro-Brown division. But this, too, is entirely presentational. They created New Labour together. Brown was the brain, Blair the frontman. The clashes were of egos, ambition and hangers-on, not of principle or strategy.

The reality is that the New Labour project has collapsed. Now we need someone who respects the democratic process in the party, parliament and cabinet. We need someone who wants to reverse the growth of inequality in the UK. We need someone who is willing to reorientate UK foreign policy, peel off from our craven, lapdog role and start to work with others for a stronger UN and a more equitable world order. We need a leader who will cease to echo US/Israeli policy in the Middle East and work with others for a just settlement in accordance with international law. The tragedy for Labour is that there is no such potential leader in the parliamentary party and little discussion in the wider party of how these changes might be made.

Lance Price

Former adviser to Tony Blair
Speculation about the next Labour leader is predicated on expectations of defeat at the election. But the question is legitimate. The debate and manoeuvring that accompany it are impos­sible to hide. Unless Gordon Brown pulls off a remarkable victory, the task confronting the next leader will be determined by the scale of Labour's defeat. Whoever it is must have an unambiguous understanding of what made New Labour popular. Of the two styles of ­politics embodied in the leadership since 1994, one worked and one didn't. If we want a compromise candidate whom we never expect to form a government, we may go for Harriet Harman.

If we want a leader with the creativity, popular appeal and determination to lead us back into power, the shortlist boils down to David and Ed Miliband, Andy Burnham and James Purnell. I would support the Foreign Secretary.

Charlie Whelan

Former adviser to Gordon Brown
There's going to be no leadership election because we're going to win the election and Gordon Brown's going to be leader.

Peter Wheeler

Member of Labour's National Executive Committee
The next leader of the Labour Party should be Gordon Brown - there is no vacancy. Without Brown, we would have faced the sort of economic meltdown they have seen in Iceland or Ireland. We are facing a Tory party more right-wing at every level than it was under Margaret Thatcher. This isn't the time for these dinner-party debates; it's time for Labour supporters to be campaigning hard for a Labour victory. I am just on my way out to deliver some leaflets - anyone is welcome to join us.

This article first appeared in the 25 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: Why we cannot win this war

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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