Chávez's U-turn on socialism

Venezuela-based economic advisor and analyst, Stephanie Blankenburg, on what could be Chávez's fight

On 2 January, a month on from his defeat in a referendum about a socialist reform of the county’s constitution, President Hugo Chávez Frías of Venezuela performed a stunning political U-turn.

In typically flamboyant style, he made a surprise call to Venezolana de Televisión, the country’s main state-owned TV channel, “to drop a ‘bombita’ (small bomb)” on an unsuspecting public: He had decided to abandon his socialist agenda “for now” in order to form stronger alliances with the country’s middle classes, its private sector and the national bourgeoisie instead.

To dispel any doubts about his seriousness in adopting this new political course, he replaced vice-president, Dr Jorge Rodríguez – the public face of his campaign for “21st century socialism” in Venezuela – with Ramón Carrizales, a military officer and technocrat, known for his good relationships with the country’s business sector.

Perhaps more significantly still, Chávez had already signed an end-of-the year amnesty for imprisoned perpetrators of a right-wing coup attempt against him in 2002.

The President’s version of events

Two days later, on his Sunday TV show “Aló Presidente” (Hallo, President), Chávez presented his fully reshuffled new cabinet and set out to explain the rationale for his action. His socialist project had been defeated, because the country had not been ready for such a radical approach.

The only democratic response was to acknowledge defeat and to adopt a more gradual and inclusive way forward. Apart from broadening alliances to bring private business and the middle classes back into the fold, this would also mean a more careful focus on mass education and communal self-organisation. Socialism had not been abandoned, but postponed, although, by the sound of things, for quite some time to come.

Chávez’ analysis of the current situation certainly has the pleasant ring of reasonableness to it. There also is little doubt, even amongst the most fervent socialists in Venezuela, that the agenda for “21st socialism”, adopted in January 2007 as abruptly as it has now been abandoned, had been rushed in with too much haste, limiting space and time for public consultation and debate of often complex issues.

Yet, the solidity of this analysis stands and falls with the correctness of its main premise – that the failure of voters to approve the constitutional reform project in the referendum of 2 December was a vote against socialism. This is much less clear.

What is clear is that the defeat of Chávez’ reform project at the polls is down to the abstention of roughly three million voters, who only a year earlier had voted for him as their president on the same socialist platform.

Compared to the December 2006 presidential elections, the opposition did not gain any votes. It seems unlikely such a substantial bloc of Chávez supporters should have been deterred merely by deficient campaigning a year after enthusiastically endorsing him.

In fact, a closer look at electoral patterns reveals a clear protest vote, not against a socialist agenda, but against corrupt administrations, at the national and the regional level.

Chavismo and the ‘oil curse’

To understand, where this protest vote came from and why it outweighed the pro-Chavez and pro-socialism vote, it helps to remember that Venezuela is defined by only one thing – oil.

For almost a century, the state has been a gigantic machine to distribute oil rent. In this context, left and right have a rather different meaning from their usual connotations.

On one side of a profound societal divide, there are those who benefit from oil from the very rich elites down to middle-rank state employees with comfortable pension arrangements.

On the other side, there are those who are excluded from a share in this bounty, the poor and the lower middle classes.

Not surprisingly, the main objective of the “insiders” is to defend and expand their share in the country’s oil wealth. Those on the outside divide into the small group with some chance of eventually making it to the inside, and the much larger group of people without any realistic chance of ever getting there.

The latter are, or used to be, core Chávez supporters: Their only hope is structural reform that dismantles the distributive rent state and replaces it by a productive developmental state. Until now, they had set their hopes on Chávez.

That these hopes have been rattled, is only marginally to do with a hasty referendum campaign, or with the people’s ideological immaturity.

On the contrary, one of the most impressive achievements of Chavismo is precisely the very high degree of political awareness and education amongst the poor.

No, the vote outcome has everything to do with the accession of many a Chavista to the rank of “insider” over the past eight years. This process has been gradual, and perhaps inevitable in a society in which institutionalised rentier-mechanisms have been endemic for decades.

But the contradiction between a radical socialist government agenda and the “Chavista elite”, bent on defending its share in the oil rent, effectively came to a head last year.

Far from being a left-wing administration, the bulk of ministerial positions in the old cabinet, as well as many governorships, remained in the hands of the “Chavista right”, or “new insiders”.

For example, the new vice-president, Ramón Carrizales, is also ex-minister of Housing, a core social policy ministry.

All through 2007, the battle between this “Chavista elite” and the “Chavista street” was fought out within government, with the so-called left-wingers, led by Jorge Rodríguez, in the minority.

It is an open secret in Venezuela that many governors, while publicly campaigning for a 'yes' vote in the referendum, used their resources to mobilise for the no-vote behind the scenes.

Equally an open secret is the sudden destabilisation of the economy through food shortages and an escalating black market dollar exchange rate which was at least allowed to linger on for longer than necessary.

A ‘soft coup’ or a return to electoral glory?

So the Chávez U-turn looks a lot less radical. For one, the new cabinet resembles its predecessor more than it differs from it. More importantly, it is not at all obvious the strategy of a shift to the “right” will help to pacify the country and stabilize the economy.

Why? Well if it is correct that the result of 2 December was essentially a protest vote by the “Chavista street” against the “Chavista elite”, then giving the latter free range is unlikely to boost Chávez with the popular base.

Yet, this popular base is all that stands between him and a ‘soft coup’ by an emboldened middle class, made up of the “Chavista elite”, the largely a-political state bureaucracy and moderate such as ex-General Raúl Baduel, a former ally and defence minister who joined the opposition ranks in November 2007.

After all, with the control over the country's state apparatus and economic resources firmly in the hands of these groups, and a weakened popular base for Chávez, perhaps unable to deliver election future victories, why would the middle classes and their allies in the new and old elites still need Chávez?

Chávez is too much of a seasoned politician not to know this. If he still has chosen this course, it is not necessarily because it is of his liking or even of his making alone. It simply reflects the real distribution of power on the ground. His most important response is not the much publicized government reshuffle, but his decision to accelerate the organisation of a Chavista mass party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

The task of getting this new mass party up to speed is an uphill one, especially with a “Chavista” government in place that has no interest in promoting such a move, and the popular base alienated.

But unless Chávez – and the PSUV – win the regional and municipal elections scheduled for November 2008, Venezuela might well have a new president before the year is out.

In charge of the unenviable task to built a mass party in a few months and to win elections by the end of the year is none other than Jorge Rodríguez.

Dr Stephanie Blankenburg is Lecturer in International Political Economy in the Economics Department at the School of Oriental and Social Studies (SOAS), London. She is currently on secondment to Venezuela as an economic advisor and analyst. This article reflects her personal analysis and is unrelated to any government views or policies.

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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