As 2011 recedes into the past, it feels like the best way to write a reflection on the year is to notice what tools, pleasures and pains it most obviously left in my consciousness.
Neuro-psycho-evo-year[edit | edit source]
So much mind science rolling up to my feet. It’s been around for me since the early 00s, when I started studying the various natural and social sciences of play in depth. I pulled together little fragments in 2004’s The Play Ethic - neurologists reporting how play ‘lights up every area of the brain’ in a CAT scan, ‘like a Christmas tree’, some kind of evidence of its link to general cognitive health and vitality. Or Brian Sutton-Smith’s marvellously suggestive notion (in The Ambiguity of Play) of ‘adaptive potentiation’ - the very teeming variety and heterodoxy of play forms explained by its role in enhancing the survivability and flourishing of complex social animals.
So I found myself walking into the muffled snowstorm of ‘social animal’ and ‘nudge’ thinking in 2011, in the first full year of a Coalition government at Westminster. From play studies, I carried in my head a rather more labile and fluid conception of human nature than one which claimed (as the Nudge authors Thaler and Sunstein did) that Homer Simpson was our behavioural default: short-termist, fearing loss more than desiring gain, unable to think clearly because of savannah-era tendencies. In terms of the cross-party paternalism and know-better-ism that marked New Labour and the New Tory/Coalition regimes of the last 14 years, this seemed like far too expedient and convenient a set of psycho-social truths.
So, much of my mental life in 2011 was spent getting to know this enemy of autonomy: reading David Brooks’ impressively facile The Social Animal, listening to LSE podcasts from government-appointed academics who were building up the statistical confidence to make divorce tougher (and thereby increase 'happiness'), prising open the playful moments in think-tank papers otherwise entranced by a presumptively normative account of human behaviour. I found a wonderful paper by my old lit-theory guru Catherine Belsey which accused nudge-thinking of having an ‘irredeemably suburban’ vision of human nature. That helped.
What was truly fascinating was the way that social-animal scientism was seized upon by the good guys too. The RSA’s Social Brain project has entertained many of its epigones over 2011. Yet thankfully, at the end of the year, a paper called ‘Transforming Behaviour Change’ by its head, Jonathan Rowson, acknowledged the need to emphasise the meta-level nature of human consciousness, what they called ‘neurological reflexivity’. I remember Steven Pinker at the end of The Blank Slate saying that ‘ultimately, I can tell my genes to go take a jump in the lake’.
What is so frustrating about the nudgers is that all those extemporisations of humanity that we exult in - arts of all kinds, technological and scientific innovations - hardly figure in their drearily bureaucratic vision of humanity. As the book I’ve been toiling over for 2011 (and looks like most of 2012 too) says, aren’t we ‘radical animals’ as well as ‘social animals’?
The gaming of ‘cognitive bias’ comes from all angles. Greens like the New Economics Foundation, Marek Kohn and Tim Jackson believe that ‘good public policy’ (and by implication, mandarinate and non-nudge-able policy makers) can leverage our petty instincts for social comparison and herd-behaviour into sustainable lifestyles, given the right cues and ‘choice architecture’. I understand the frustrations of Greens: after many fruitless years trying to use statistics and science to scare over-consuming Northerners/Westerners, they’re now searching around for ‘irrational’ levers for behaviour change, in recognition that the ‘rational’ case seems difficult to make count.
Yet I think this is a mistake. I don’t believe the human thirst for novelty and innovation can be so easily taken down a notch or two by enlightened system-steerers and cultural-shapers. I think it has to be redirected from being gratified by status and gadget consumption, towards the pleasures of craft, making and what the Greeks called poiesis (which I’d like to recover from the general autopoiesis of ‘being a good and dutiful consumer’). This can be as digital as it is material, as interested in spectacle and sensuality as it is in efficient and graspable process.
But we have to be more bold and capacious in our understanding of human nature, and think of the kinds of collective support we need for an intrinsically satisfying makerism. Which means arguing for policy (like social wages, shorter working weeks, new public housing and participation-oriented urban regulation) that supports the unfolding of our autonomy among ourselves in free space and time, rather than policy as the management of our poor forked ‘savannah’ selves by a psychologically-reifying government (or Green movement).
Networks-statist-year[edit | edit source]
My life is equally split between London and Glasgow, with beloved family and creative colleagues in both cities. This has given me a stereoscopic viewpoint on political change, and more specifically the motivations and instruments for that change.
The May 2011 General Elections to the Scottish Parliament didn’t just produce an outright victory for a social-democratic party (the SNP) which wants to establish an independent Scottish state, and which has now set a date for a referendum on that possibility. These elections were also a victory for a kind of cybernetics-meets-positive-psychology form of political campaigning in the network age.
As a Habermasian ‘constitutional patriot’, essentially happy with the idea of democracies being shaped by rational debate in the public sphere, I should expect to be pleased that a vigorous contest of ideas in a national election came out with my desired result. But while the campaign continued, I kept turning to Manuel Castells’ recent masterwork Communication Power. And I realised (with a little digging and inside knowledge) that the SNP had deployed - at least via its marketing advice - the same kinds of ‘cognitive bias’ methods I’d been deploring in my struggles with the New Toryism.
Much of it comes from US studies into how emotion (values and habits) is essentially at the seat of voters’ political decisions, rather than just rational calculation of self-interest. This is the lesson that the Republican Party learned over many years, using the best psychological expertise of Madison Avenue to select images and phrases that triggered primary emotions. And it’s a lesson that (excepting Clinton and Obama) the Democrats generally forget, preferring to aim detailed and statistical policies at the rational minds of voters.
The basic psychological–neurological mechanisms that underpin what Castells calls ‘emotional politics’ almost instantly begin to shed light on the SNP’s transformative victory. To begin with, it’s all about the mirror-neurons: the fact that when we see an action performed in the world, the same part of our brain fires up as if we were performing that action ourselves. As George Lakoff says, the use of the same neural structure for experience, and representation of experience, has ‘enormous political consequences.’
Parties or politicians should now be aware that everything they do and say, and the forms in which they do so, is shaping voters in much deeper ways than they had previously thought.
Crucially, the brain builds frames – made from culture and language, but resulting in new, physical patterns of neurons – to make use of these primary responses to others. The prize for creating the most compelling emotional frame is huge, whether you’re making TV shows, advertising or a political campaign. Castells’ research suggests that it is this emotionally-rooted frame which actually shapes which facts and information you find relevant in any argument. Establish your frame in people’s minds, and they’ll literally see reality – including the details and priorities of policy – your way.
Clearly this is what the SNP’s campaign – reportedly begun in August 2010 – fully achieved. But how, exactly? Castells identifies two deep emotional responses that are particularly relevant to politics: enthusiasm and fear. Fear triggers anxiety, uncertainty and an increase in political calculation in the voter, who widens her search for more information about the other parties, carefully evaluating options. But if you can incite enthusiasm, the voter narrows down his search for other options, and exhibits ‘goal seeking behaviour’ towards those enthusiastic parties and politicians. Political enthusiasm ‘creates positive emotions by directing an individual towards experiences and situations that produce pleasure and reward.’
All parties in this election bombarded the voters with anxiety-generating statistics and policy options, aimed at the ‘rationally calculating’ citizen. But the SNP almost certainly had the campaign with the most enthusiastic, culturally uplifting overtones. There were bright, collective slogans: ‘Be Part of Better’, ‘Let’s Work Together’ (tied to an evocative rock song) and ‘Together We Can Make Scotland Better’. There were Hollywood-style campaign launches, and steady streams of substantial celebrity and leading-figure endorsements.
Yes, at the heart of this was a defensible policy record and a credible policy manifesto, weapons available to use at the traditional rationalist hustings moment if necessary. But the SNP’s overall cloud of positivity managed to cast every other party in the role of complainers and carpers on the sidelines. Castells quotes research on ads in American political campaigns which says that if you engage voters with an enthusiastic appeal, their prior political choices firm up: that is, the symbolic ‘frame’ of the campaign reinforces the neural ‘frame’ (or predisposition) in the citizen’s mind.
As the SNP was already the incumbent party, with a clear electoral base surrounded by floating voters, the positive campaign probably encouraged half-hearted SNP supporters to vote full-heartedly. And it possibly encouraged full-hearted ones to respond to the ‘both votes SNP’ appeal of the final week, thus breaking the anti-majority structural bias of the Holyrood parliament.
Scottish Labour ran a campaign almost entirely aimed at the ‘fear’ frame of the emotional citizen. According to Castells’ studies of American politics, it was almost textbook Republican stuff. One of the most powerful and deep emotional triggers (or ‘somatic markers’) that politicians can reach for is fear of death. Communication Power shows how Republicans successfully used the ‘existential threat to the nation’ after 9/11 to build public support for military actions, the factual justification for which was either ill-founded or fallacious. In the grip of a successful ‘death-fear’ framing, rational or empirical counter-argument mattered little to American opinion.
The interesting subtlety that Castells notices is between anxiety and anger. A fear-based rhetoric that clearly identifies a wrong-doer, and rouses anger against them - Bin Laden or Saddam - has the same cognitive effect as an enthusiastic appeal: it focuses rather than diffuses citizens’ minds, leading to ‘an imprudent processing of events’, a desire for justice that narrows down the search for other options. Anxiety, on the other hand, has the contrary effect.
What was Scottish Labour’s knife-crime policy, other than a direct (and tawdry) appeal to ‘fear of death’? Now, according to the cognitive science, what fear and anxiety does is to impel voters to begin to seek out more information and to ‘carefully evaluate’ other options. Yet this also tends to diffuse voting intention, rather than firm it up – and in any case, the SNP were ready with a ‘positive’ response of ‘1,000 more police on the beat’.
Rather scarily, what we should be thankful for is that the Labour Party didn't identify a folk-devil to turn general anxiety about knife-crime into focussed anger: imagine party-political broadcasts of marauding neds across bucolic housing schemes. (One of their ex-advisors, John McTernan, wanted even worse, linking SNP policies to old people dying in their homes, and social breakdown.)
The second fear strategy deployed by Labour in the last week was ‘fear of deprivation’: the consequence of an SNP vote leading to independence, and all the societal ‘chaos’ that implied. But again, the SNP could use its incumbency to remind voters of the continuity and stability of the previous four years of Scottish government.
Castells often talks about the natural and instinctive politician being able to resonate emotionally, using cultural metaphors and symbols, with his or her constituency. Salmond’s summation of the popular judgement on the SNP’s first term in government – ‘Aye, they’ve done no’ bad, they deserve another kick o’ the ball’ – is an effortless example.
Castells also talks about hope as a powerful emotional underpinning of politics. ‘Hope is a fundamental ingredient in activating brain maps that motivate political behaviour oriented towards achieving wellbeing in the future, as a consequence of action in the present,’ he writes. ‘Hope is a key component of political mobilisation... Fear is essential for self-preservation. But hope is essential for survival because it allows individuals to plan the outcome of their decisions, and it motivates them to move toward a course of action from which they expect to benefit.’
Of course, ‘hope’ (not to mention ‘Change You Can Believe In’) was the great slogan of the Obama campaign in 2008. (Castells provides a magisterial analysis of that in Communication Power.) But ‘Change You Can Believe In’ was almost the invisible subtitle running under every part of the SNP’s campaign. If hope is ‘essential because it allows individuals to plan the outcome of their decisions’ and ‘motivates them to move towards a course of action from which they expect to benefit’, then the SNP’s ‘Scottish Hope’ tied those practical aspirations to the functioning of a Scottish parliament.
Scottish Labour’s other peddled scare – ‘fear of Tory Westminster’ (chimed by all the other non-Tory Unionist parties) – might have had the desired effect of getting undecided voters to seek information about those generating the fear. Castells says that anxiety also weakens the general intention to even participate in a voting process. Yet those who did eventually turn to examine the SNP as the ‘scary’ party would have found a ‘hopeful’ narrative and framing about their life in Scotland: a narrative that had at least the possibility of answering their citizen’s desires to take more control of, and get more benefit from, their lives.
Again, Scottish Labour didn’t manage to transform anxiety about independence, or rule from Tory Westminster, into anger. It would seem that over a decade of a Scottish Parliament has gradually answered the desires of Scottish citizens for more power in their own lives: desires thwarted, and therefore transformable into much angry protest, in my heyday political era of the 80s and 90s.
Might this analysis also account for the failure of the Greens (which I regretted – I was looking forward to a much stronger voice for sustainability in the parliament)? They sallied forth on their own ‘fear-oriented’ politics: the keynote being ‘we’ll raise taxes to defend you against Tory-imposed cuts’, within a general horizon of looming environmental collapse. Greens have a joyful, convivial, optimistic political message buried away in their thinking and practice, but in the face of the SNP’s Juggernaut of Joy, none of the attractive aspects of sustainable lifestyle change could remotely come through. ‘Change You Couldn’t Believe In’, one might say.
Castells’ summary of information-age politics is worth chewing over: ‘Creating new content and new forms, in the networks that connect minds and their communicative environment, is tantamount to rewiring our minds.’
So I found myself at the end of 2011 in a state of some ambivalence. An anti-nuclear (power and weapons), non-militarist, pro-social-democratic, sustainability-friendly sovereign Scotland has been a dream of mine for twenty-odd years: a stunning election victory brings it thrillingly closer, via another act of impeccably orderly, non-violent democracy (the Independence Referendum).
Yet I can’t deny that it was brought about, at least partly, by some ‘political brain’ insights about cognitive frailty and ‘predictable irrationality’ that I deplore in other contexts, such as the New Tories using our ‘herd’-natures to justify slashing state budgets on public services, expecting the slack to be picked up by the ‘little platoons’ of the Big Society. Is this simply the deep rationale for all party-political machines at the moment, no matter their ideological stripe: assemblages of data, activists, memes, psychological strategy, above-and-below-line media campaigns, the propaganda usage of interactive networks...?
I find my London life - or at least the peers and locales that I move through in that life - to be considerably more experimental and tentative in thinking about human nature, collective action, and the communicational tools of change. I introduced my own new addition to the political-theory lexicon, the Constitute (a noun not a verb), at Hub Westminster.
This is a relatively open, raggedy space for social enterprise at the heart of Westminster, which can contain both anarcho-catastrophists like Vinay Gupta, and (at the beginning of 2012) David Cameron launching a campaign for more cooperative enterprises. I also remember speaking at a student protest Really Free School in Bloomsbury in 2011, followed by BBC Newsnight’s Paul Mason lecturing on the Paris Commune.
For me, this proximity of representatives of the British State to the most extreme kinds of free radicals bespeaks the overall unravelling of politics-as-usual from a Westminster perspective. We’re in a moment with resonances of Paddy Chayefsky's Network (1976), where elites and margins intermingle, and all manner of alarming alliances and platforms might be forged.
There’s no surprise, as the resplendent capital of an ancien regime, that London - never mind the consumer riots and Occupy St Pauls - felt closer to the spirit of networked uprising in Tunisia and Egypt than Scotland did. But at the beginning of 2012, I am uncomfortably strung between the pleasure I take in the interstitial activists of London, and my joy in the mid-20th century national liberation narrative of Scottish sovereignty. And all round, on all sides, the hawkers of hot buttons to press into the soft spots of human nature mill and shill. Bliss it is in this very dawn to be complexified.
- Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
- Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
- David Brooks, The Social Animal: A Story of How Success Happens (London: Short Books, 2011).
- Catherine Belsey, ‘Biology and Imagination: the role of culture’ in Robin Headlam Wells & Johnjoe McFadden, Ed., Human nature: fact and fiction (London: Continuum, 2006), 114.
- See http://web.archive.org/web/20120630045053/http://www.thersa.org:80/projects/social-brain
- Jonathan Rowson, Transforming Behaviour Change: Beyond Nudge and Neuromania, (London: RSA, November 2011).
- Manuel Castells, Communication Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- George Lakoff, ‘The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-century Politics with an 18th-century Brain’ (New York: Viking, 2008), 40.