Sunday, 30 June 2019

The science of influencing people: six ways to win an argument

Hidebound views on subjects such as the climate crisis and Brexit are the norm – but the appliance of science may sway stubborn opinions writes David Robson in The Guardian 

Illustration: Getty Images/Observer Design

“I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters of religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s,” wrote Mark Twain.

Having written a book about our most common reasoning errors, I would argue that Twain was being rather uncharitable – to monkeys. Whether we are discussing Trump, Brexit, or the Tory leadership, we have all come across people who appear to have next to no understanding of world events – but who talk with the utmost confidence and conviction. And the latest psychological research can now help us to understand why.

Consider the “illusion of explanatory depth”. When asked about government policies and their consequences, most people believe that they could explain their workings in great detail. If put to the test, however, their explanations are vague and incoherent. The problem is that we confuse a shallow familiarity with general concepts for real, in-depth knowledge.

Besides being less substantial than we think, our knowledge is also highly selective: we conveniently remember facts that support our beliefs and forget others. When it comes to understanding the EU, for instance, Brexiters will know the overall costs of membership, while remainers will cite its numerous advantages. Although the overall level of knowledge is equal on both sides, there is little overlap in the details.

Simply asking why people support or oppose a policy is pointless. You need to ask how something works to have an effect

Politics can also scramble our critical thinking skills. Psychological studies show that people fail to notice the logical fallacies in an argument if the conclusion supports their viewpoint; if they are shown contrary evidence, however, they will be far more critical of the tiniest hole in the argument. This phenomenon is known as “motivated reasoning”.

A high standard of education doesn’t necessarily protect us from these flaws. Graduates, for instance, often overestimate their understanding of their degree subject: although they remember the general content, they have forgotten the details. “People confuse their current level of understanding with their peak knowledge,” Prof Matthew Fisher of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, says. That false sense of expertise can, in turn, lead them to feel that they have the licence to be more closed-minded in their political views – an attitude known as “earned dogmatism”.

Little wonder that discussions about politics can leave us feeling that we are banging our heads against a brick wall – even when talking to people we might otherwise respect. Fortunately, recent psychological research also offers evidence-based ways towards achieving more fruitful discussions.

Ask ‘how’ rather than ‘why’
Thanks to the illusion of explanatory depth, many political arguments will be based on false premises, spoken with great confidence but with a minimal understanding of the issues at hand. For this reason, a simple but powerful way of deflating someone’s argument is to ask for more detail. “You need to get the ‘other side’ focusing on how something would play itself out, in a step by step fashion”, says Prof Dan Johnson at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. By revealing the shallowness of their existing knowledge, this prompts a more moderate and humble attitude.

FacebookTwitterPinterest Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray and a pro-Brexit protester face off outside parliament earlier this year. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

In 2013, Prof Philip Fernbach at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and colleagues asked participants in cap-and-trade schemes – designed to limit companies’ carbon emissions – to describe in depth how they worked. Subjects initially took strongly polarised views but after the limits of their knowledge were exposed, their attitudes became more moderate and less biased.

It’s important to note that simply asking why people supported or opposed the policy – without requiring them to explain how it works – had no effect, since those reasons could be shallower (“It helps the environment”) with little detail. You need to ask how something works to get the effect.

If you are debating the merits of a no-deal Brexit, you might ask someone to describe exactly how the UK’s international trade would change under WTO terms. If you are challenging a climate emergency denier, you might ask them to describe exactly how their alternative theories can explain the recent rise in temperatures. It’s a strategy that the broadcaster James O’Brien employs on his LBC talk show – to powerful effect.

Fill their knowledge gap with a convincing story
If you are trying to debunk a particular falsehood – like a conspiracy theory or fake news – you should make sure that your explanation offers a convincing, coherent narrative that fills all the gaps left in the other person’s understanding.

Consider the following experiment by Prof Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Prof Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter. Subjects read stories about a fictional senator allegedly under investigation for bribery who had subsequently resigned from his post. Written evidence – a letter from prosecutors confirming his innocence – did little to change the participants’ suspicions of his guilt. But when offered an alternative explanation for his resignation – to take on another role – participants changed their minds. The same can be seen in murder trials: people are more likely to accept someone’s innocence if another suspect has also been accused, since that fills the biggest gap in the story: whodunnit.

FacebookTwitterPinterest Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Rory Stewart taking part in a BBC TV debate earlier this month. Photograph: Jeff Overs/BBC/PA

The persuasive power of well-constructed narratives means that it’s often useful to discuss the sources of misinformation, so that the person can understand why they were being misled in the first place. Anti-vaxxers, for instance, may believe a medical conspiracy to cover up the supposed dangers of vaccines. You are more likely to change minds if you replace that narrative with an equally cohesive and convincing story – such as Andrew Wakefield’s scientific fraud, and the fact that he was set to profit from his paper linking autism to MMR vaccines. Just stating the scientific evidence will not be as persuasive.

Reframe the issue
Each of our beliefs is deeply rooted in a much broader and more complex political ideology. Climate crisis denial, for instance, is now inextricably linked to beliefs in free trade, capitalism and the dangers of environmental regulation.

Attacking one issue may therefore threaten to unravel someone’s whole worldview – a feeling that triggers emotionally charged motivated reasoning. It is for this reason that highly educated Republicans in the US deny the overwhelming evidence.

You are not going to alter someone’s whole political ideology in one discussion, so a better strategy is to disentangle the issue at hand from their broader beliefs, or to explain how the facts can still be accommodated into their worldview. A free-market capitalist who denies global warming might be far more receptive to the evidence if you explain that the development of renewable energies could lead to technological breakthroughs and generate economic growth.

Appeal to an alternative identity

If the attempt to reframe the issue fails, you might have more success by appealing to another part of the person’s identity entirely.

Someone’s political affiliation will never completely define them, after all. Besides being a conservative or a socialist, a Brexiter or a remainer, we associate ourselves with other traits and values – things like our profession, or our role as a parent. We might see ourselves as a particularly honest person, or someone who is especially creative. “All people have multiple identities,” says Prof Jay Van Bavel at New York University, who studies the neuroscience of the “partisan brain”. “These identities can become active at any given time, depending on the circumstances.”

You are more likely to achieve your aims by arguing gently and kindly. You will also come across better to onlookers

It’s natural that when talking about politics, the salient identity will be our support for a particular party or movement. But when people are asked to first reflect on their other, nonpolitical values, they tend to become more objective in discussion on highly partisan issues, as they stop viewing facts through their ideological lens.

You could try to use this to your advantage during a heated conversation, with subtle flattery that appeals to another identity and its set of values; if you are talking to a science teacher, you might try to emphasise their capacity to appraise evidence even-handedly. The aim is to help them recognise that they can change their mind on certain issues while staying true to other important elements of their personality.

Persuade them to take an outside perspective

Another simple strategy to encourage a more detached and rational mindset is to ask your conversation partner to imagine the argument from the viewpoint of someone from another country. How, for example, would someone in Australia or Iceland view Boris Johnson as our new prime minister?

Prof Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan, and Prof Igor Grossmann at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, have shown that this strategy increases “psychological distance” from the issue at hand and cools emotionally charged reasoning so that you can see things more objectively. During the US presidential elections, for instance, their participants were asked to consider how someone in Iceland would view the candidates. They were subsequently more willing to accept the limits of their knowledge and to listen to alternative viewpoints; after the experiment, they were even more likely to join a bipartisan discussion group.

FacebookTwitterPinterest The front pages of two New York newspapers on Friday 2 June 2017, as Donald Trump pledged to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement. Photograph: Richard B Levine/Alamy

This is only one way to increase someone’s psychological distance, and there are many others. If you are considering policies with potentially long-term consequences, you could ask them to imagine viewing the situation through the eyes of someone in the future. However you do it, encouraging this shift in perspective should make your friend or relative more receptive to the facts you are presenting, rather than simply reacting with knee-jerk dismissals.

Be kind
Here’s a lesson that certain polemicists in the media might do well to remember – people are generally much more rational in their arguments, and more willing to own up to the limits of their knowledge and understanding, if they are treated with respect and compassion. Aggression, by contrast, leads them to feel that their identity is threatened, which in turn can make them closed-minded.

Assuming that the purpose of your argument is to change minds, rather than to signal your own superiority, you are much more likely to achieve your aims by arguing gently and kindly rather than belligerently, and affirming your respect for the person, even if you are telling them some hard truths. As a bonus, you will also come across better to onlookers. “There’s a lot of work showing that third-party observers always attribute high levels of competence when the person is conducting themselves with more civility,” says Dr Joe Vitriol, a psychologist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. As Lady Mary Wortley Montagu put it in the 18th century: “Civility costs nothing and buys everything.”

Friday, 28 June 2019

World Happiness Report - Pakistan leads South Asia

Daud Khan in The Friday Times

The World Happiness Report 2019, which ranks countries according to how happy their citizens are, came out recently. As usual, when such international rankings are published, the first reaction is to look at who tops the lists and where Pakistan stands. Topping the ranking were the usual suspects – Finland, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Switzerland and Sweden – the ones that top almost all rankings related to quality of life. No surprises here. The surprise was Pakistan. Unlike other rankings, where we are usually in the bottom quartile or quintile, we were ranked 67th out of 156 countries in the survey. We were the highest in South Asia, above Nepal (100), Bangladesh (125), Sri Lanka (130) and India (140). We also ranked higher than China (93), some European countries such as Croatia (75) and Greece (82), as well as the richer Muslim countries such as Turkey (79) and Malaysia (80).

Happiness theory came into the public discourse following the publication of a seminal book by Richard Layard of the London School of Economics – Happiness: Lessons From A New Science. The book reported a number of surveys in Britain and the U.S. that showed that people had not become happier in the post-war period despite massive economic growth. The book also reported that while incomes were important, people gave high value to things like family, friendship, social status and living in a safe society. Since the publication of the book, much work has been done to delve deeper into the issue. One of the key findings of this research is that the subjective levels of happiness-unhappiness are a legitimate measure of wellbeing. They are well correlated with objective measures of brain activity, and with events such as marriage and divorce, birth and death; and getting and losing a job.

So what makes a country happy? The report looks at six factors. Of these, two are measured quantitatively – GDP per capita adjusted for real purchasing-power and life expectancy at birth. The other four factors are measured by answers to the following question: If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on? Are you satisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life? Have you donated money to a charity in the past month? Is corruption widespread throughout the government? Is corruption widespread within businesses? These six factors explain levels of happiness in most countries. The largest single contributor to happiness comes from the existence of good social support systems which account for 34 percent, followed by GDP per capita (26 percent), life expectancy (21 percent), freedom (11 percent), generosity (five percent), and lack of corruption (three percent). In most South Asia these six factors account for 70-80 percent of the happiness score of countries.

In Pakistan, however, these six factors taken together do not explain even half of our happiness score. It is something apart for the usual things (income, health, social security) that makes Pakistanis happy. So what is it? We are free to speculate but my guess it is the music, the optimistic and cheerful nature of Pakistani people, the feeling that things are getting better, and the close relationship Pakistanis have with family, friends and community. These are things which make Pakistanis unique and something we need to recognise and cherish.

The report also compares countries’ happiness scores between 2005-8 and 2016-18. Over this period Pakistan has increased its happiness score significantly (by 0.703 on a scale from 0-10). This has placed it number 20 on the list of counties that have grown happier. Again the same question comes to mind – what has made Pakistanis happier over the last 10-12 years? Some answers come to mind such as the improved law and order situation; better roads, electricity supply and the cellular phone network; and the ability to change governments peacefully through the ballot box.

While the report does not answer the question about why Pakistanis are happy and have been getting happier, it does have two messages that are very important for families as well as policy makers. First, that the increasing amount of time spent on social media, especially by adolescents, reduces time spent on happiness enhancing activities such as being with friends and family. Pakistani families need to take note and act accordingly. Second, mental health and associated addictions for example to food, internet usage or drugs create crushing unhappiness. In Pakistan neither public health policies nor social norms recognize that metal health is as important as physical health. This is something that needs a lot more attention than it gets.

Another interesting finding from the report is that happiness in India between 2015 and 2018 fell significantly (by 1.137). This places it among the top of the league table of countries that have become unhappier alongside Venezuela, Yemen, Central African Republic and Greece.

The report suggests that unhappier people hold more populist and authoritarian attitudes. Probably the success of the BJP, and other populist and nationalist parties, has been their ability to target the unhappiness and anger of voters.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Modi’s publicity machine cannot hide India’s patchy progress

PM has persuaded millions of his achievements but reality tells another story writes Amy Kazmin in The FT

In the run-up to the recent general election, Indians were hit by a tidal wave of propaganda hammering home the message that prime minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party had, in five short years, transformed their country into a prosperous, powerful nation. 

The shortlived “NaMo” television channel broadcast Mr Modi’s speeches and infomercials talking up his achievements. BJP call centres contacted more than 200m recipients of new gas cylinders, toilets and other benefits to remind them of the premier’s munificence. Viral WhatsApp videos exulted in the dubious claim that Indian missiles killed 300 Pakistani terrorists in February — avenging the earlier deaths of 44 Indian paramilitaries in a suicide bombing. 

Then there was a catchy rap video targeting first-time voters, in which dancers in trendy western clothes celebrated India’s ostensible metamorphosis. Mr Modi, the dancers rapped, was “the one: one-and-only one who’s got everything done”. 

But as the euphoria has receded since Mr Modi’s re-election last month, Indians have been waking up to hard realities of the severe economic, social and ecological challenges confronting their country. The sudden shift in public mood feels much like a severe hangover, after a giddy celebration the night before. 

Mr Modi’s supporters were still enjoying the afterglow of his landslide victory and swearing-in ceremony when they were hit with the news that the slowing economy grew 5.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2019, its lowest increase in five years, and a sharp deceleration from the 6.6 per cent gross domestic product growth in the last quarter of 2018. 

New Delhi also finally released a long-awaited labour report showing that about 18 per cent of young men, aged 15-29, are unemployed. The grim findings were ready months earlier, but officials had tried to bury them. National Statistics Commission members resigned in protest at the delay, but, with the election over, the survey was finally made public. 

That is not the only new information to emerge. As Indian and Pakistani planes engaged in aerial skirmishes on February 27 — a day after missiles struck Pakistan, an Indian air force helicopter crashed in the disputed northern state of Kashmir, killing six personnel on board. At the time, authorities claimed the crash was unrelated. But in recent weeks, local media has reported that the chopper was shot down by an Indian missile in a “friendly fire” incident, kept quiet so as not to embarrass the government. 

In another reminder of India’s urgent need to upgrade its outdated military equipment, an Antonov AN-32 transport plane with 13 people on board went missing 30 minutes after take-off on June 3. It took eight days, and a massive military hunt, before the crash site was found. 

But the biggest tragedy so far of Mr Modi’s fledgling second term has been the deaths of 150 children in the lychee-growing region of Bihar from acute encephalitis syndrome, known colloquially as brain fever. 

Scientists have linked the regular outbreaks of this disease at the peak of the harvest to overconsumption of the fruit by highly malnourished children. They can then suffer hypoglycaemic shock, particularly if they do not eat other food before going to bed. Along with highlighting the chronic malnutrition still stalking rural areas, the deaths have shown up the dismal state of India’s public healthcare infrastructure, with its acute shortage of doctors, nurses, equipment and supplies. 

Meanwhile in the south of the country, Chennai, India’s sixth-largest city with about 8.5m people, has run out of water. Its reservoirs are dry after several years of below-normal rainfall. Residents of this major business and industrial hub are queueing for hours for tiny quantities of water from tankers, at exorbitant prices. 

All these are sobering developments for a nation seemingly intoxicated by the belief that it can muscle its way to the global high table, led by a powerful, self-confident strongman. Mr Modi is undoubtedly a master of manipulating the political narrative, who has persuaded hundreds of millions of people of his integrity, intent and achievements. But facts on the ground point to the vast work still to be done.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

How Oxford university shaped Brexit — and Britain’s next prime minister

Simon Kuper in The FT

You turn the pages of yellowing student newspapers from 30 years ago, and there they are, recognisably the same faces that dominate today’s British news. Boris Johnson running for Union president, Michael Gove winning debating contests, Jeremy Hunt holding together the faction-ridden Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA). 

Six of the seven men who survived the first round of the Tory leadership contest earlier this month studied at Oxford. The final two remaining candidates, Johnson and Hunt, were contemporaries along with Gove in the late 1980s. 

The UK is thus about to install its 11th Oxonian prime minister since the war. (Three postwar PMs didn’t attend university, and Gordon Brown went to Edinburgh.) This beats even the grip of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration on the French presidency (four of the past six presidents have been énarques), let alone Harvard’s on the White House. 

When I arrived in Oxford aged 18 in October 1988, it was still a very British and quite amateurish university, shot through with dilettantism, sexual harassment and sherry. Gove, Hunt and the much less political David Cameron had graduated that summer, and Johnson in 1987, but from my messy desk at the student newspaper Cherwell I covered a new generation of wannabe politicians. 

You couldn’t miss Jacob Rees-Mogg, seemingly the only undergraduate who always wore a suit, or the early Europhobe Dan Hannan. Both became ideological fathers of Brexit. I’m still covering them today. 

This isn’t a jolly boys’ story about the japes we all had together. I didn’t know any of the Oxford Tories personally, because we were separated by the great Oxford class divide: I was middle class, from a London comprehensive (after years abroad), and they were mostly upper-class public schoolboys. But the night Brexit happened, I sensed it was rooted in 1980s Oxford. I wrote a column about this in July 2016, then gradually came to see that the roots went even deeper than I had realised. 

Any understanding of the British ruling class — and the next prime minister — requires returning to that place and time. 

At Cherwell, we were always writing about the Oxford Union. The debating society, off a courtyard behind the Cornmarket shopping street, was a kind of teenage House of Commons. Its officers wore white tie, speakers black tie, and everyone called each other “honourable member”. You won debates not by boring the audience with detail, but with jokes and ad hominem jibes. 

Almost all aspiring Tory politicians passed through the Union. Theresa May never won the presidency — disadvantaged by her gender and with no rhetorical gifts — but in 1979 her future husband Philip did. The Mays had been introduced at an Oxford Conservative disco by another Union president, Benazir Bhutto, future prime minister of Pakistan. 

In May’s day, the Union was a small circle of debating obsessives. But then it hit financial trouble and began recruiting among the broader student population. By 1988, about 60 per cent of Oxford’s undergraduates had paid the £60 joining fee. 

I never joined but I sometimes got press tickets to debates, and I still remember a young Benjamin Netanyahu trouncing hecklers, and, on the 50th anniversary of Dunkirk, the former prime minister and ex-Union president Ted Heath evoking Oxford on the eve of the second world war, when German invasion loomed. Another lure was the Union bar, which — almost miraculously in 1980s Britain — stayed open till 2.30am, until the deferential local police finally intervened. 

Most Oxford students opposed Margaret Thatcher by the late 1980s, but the Union’s biggest political grouping was the Tories, split between Thatcherites and “wets”, who would exchange arcane factional insults. 

The biggest political issues in mid-1980s Oxford, recalls Tim Hames, then a Union politician and member of OUCA, were Britain’s deployment of nuclear weapons, apartheid (many Tories weren’t entirely anti) and the miners’ strike. Europe rarely came up then. The European Commission had given Thatcher the British rebate she had demanded, and she was working with the Commission’s president, Jacques Delors, to create a European single market. The Single European Act was passed in 1986. 

Most Union politicians weren’t very interested in policy anyway. Anyone wanting to make policy that affected students’ lives got involved in the separate Oxford University Student Union or their college’s junior common room (JCR). That kind of politics mostly attracted aspiring Labourites. Dave Miliband chaired the student union’s accommodation committee, while Yvette Cooper, Eddie Balls and Ed Miliband were JCR presidents. 

By contrast, the Union favoured debating skills and ambition without a cause. Every eight-week term, the Union elected a president, secretary, treasurer and librarian. The “hacks”, as student politicians were known, would traipse around the colleges soliciting votes from ordinary students. 

As the future Spectator columnist Toby Young wrote in the Union’s house magazine in 1985: “It doesn’t matter how unpopular you are with the establishment, how stupid you are, how small your College is or how pretentious your old school: if only you’ve got the sheer will you can succeed.” 

Johnson’s Oxford days are now usually mentioned in connection with his membership of the hard-drinking, posh and sometimes destructive Bullingdon Club, but in fact he was a vessel of focused ambition. Arriving in Oxford from Eton in 1983, he had three aims, writes Sonia Purnell in Just Boris: to get a First-class degree, find a wife and become Union president. That post was “the first step to being prime minister”, said the 1980s Tory politician Michael Heseltine. At speakers’ dinners, a 20-year-old Union president would find himself or herself sitting next to cabinet ministers and other useful contacts. 

Most students arrived in Oxford barely knowing the Union existed, but Johnson possessed the savvy of his class: he had run Eton’s debating society, and his father Stanley had come to Oxford in 1959 intending to become Union president. Stanley had failed but Boris was a star. Simon Veksner, who followed Johnson from their house at Eton to the Union, tells me: “Boris’s charisma even then was off the charts, you couldn’t measure it: so funny, warm, charming, self-deprecating. You put on a funny act, based on The Beano and PG Wodehouse. It works, and then that is who you are.” 

Johnson also came equipped with the peculiarly intimate network that an upper-class boarding school confers. Ordinary schoolchildren spend eight hours a day with their classmates but boarders live together, and often have inner-class family connections going back generations. Johnson arrived in Oxford knowing dozens of people, whereas some state-school kids knew precisely nobody. 

He didn’t let his degree — Classics — interfere with his Union ambitions. In 1980s Oxford, studying was almost optional. A common workload for arts students was one essay a week, often penned during an overnight panic, then typically read aloud to one’s tutor. When I reread my old essays while revising for finals, they were so pathetic that I wanted to write to my tutors to apologise. 

One thing you learnt at Oxford (even if you weren’t in the Union) was how to speak without much knowledge. Underprepared students would spend much of a tutorial talking their way around the holes in their essay. Cherwell praised Simon Stevens (a Union president in 1987) as “Oxford’s most talented off-the-cuff tutorial faker”: “Recently Simes read out almost half of an essay to his tutor before his partner revealed that he was ‘reading’ from a blank piece of paper.” Stevens is now chief executive of the National Health Service, appointed in 2013 under health secretary Jeremy Hunt, his Oxford contemporary. 

Johnson just missed his First. His tutor Jonathan Barnes recalls, “If you’re intelligent enough, you can rub along in philosophy on a couple of hours a week. Boris rubbed along on no hours a week, and it wasn’t quite good enough.” Johnson’s sister Rachel said that it later fell to her to “break the terrible news” to Boris that their brother Jo had got a First. (Rachel, Jo and Boris’s first wife Allegra Mostyn-Owen all edited the Oxford magazine Isis.) 

In 1984 Johnson ran for Union president against the grammar schoolboy Neil Sherlock. The election dramatised the Oxford class struggle: upper class versus middle class. (Working-class students were rare.) In the vernacular of some public schoolboys, state-school pupils were “stains”, below even the “Tugs” from minor private schools. 

Sherlock, later a partner at KPMG and PwC, and special adviser to the Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg in 2012/13, recalls: “Boris mark one was a very conventional Tory, clearly on the right, and had what I would term an Old Etonian entitlement view: ‘I should get the top job because I’m standing for the top job.’ He didn’t have a good sense of what he was going to do with it.” 

Mostyn-Owen invited Sherlock for tea and tried to charm him into not standing against “my Boris”. Undeterred, Sherlock campaigned on a platform of “meritocrat versus toff, competence versus incompetence”. Johnson mobilised his public-school networks but lost. Sherlock came away underwhelmed by his opponent: “The rhetoric, the personality, the wit were rather randomly deployed, beyond getting a laugh.” Sherlock expected OUCA’s president Nick Robinson to become the political star, and Johnson to succeed in journalism. Instead, Robinson now presents BBC radio’s Today programme. 

Johnson learnt from his defeat. A year later he was elected president, this time disguising his Toryism by allying himself with Oxford’s Social Democrats. His second campaign was more competent: the American graduate student Frank Luntz, now a senior Republican pollster, conducted polls for him. And Johnson worked his charm beyond his base. 

Michael Gove, a Scottish fresher in 1985, told Johnson’s biographer Andrew Gimson: “The first time I saw him was in the Union bar . . . He seemed like a kindly, Oxford character, but he was really there like a great basking shark waiting for freshers to swim towards him.” Gove told Gimson: “I was Boris’s stooge. I became a votary of the Boris cult.” 

In an essay for The Oxford Myth (1988), a book edited by his sister Rachel, Johnson advised aspiring student politicians to assemble “a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges” to get out the vote. “Lonely girls from the women’s colleges” who “back their largely male candidates with a porky decisiveness” were particularly useful, he wrote. “For these young women, machine politics offers human friction and warmth.” Reading this, you realise why almost all Union presidents who become Tory politicians are men. (Thatcher’s domain was OUCA, where she was president in 1946.) 

Johnson added: “The tragedy of the stooge is that . . . he wants so much to believe that his relationship with the candidate is special that he shuts out the truth. The terrible art of the candidate is to coddle the self-deception of the stooge.” 

Tory MPs now backing Johnson’s candidacy for leader may find the essay interesting. Gove, who wore a kilt in debates, was such a gifted speaker that he could even make a compelling case to a student audience against free choice in sexual behaviour. He was unusually ideological by Union standards, a Thatcherite meritocrat. As Union president in 1988, he wrote a paean to elitism in the Union’s house magazine: “I cannot overemphasise what elitism is not. It is not about back-slapping cliques, reactionary chic or Old Etonian egos. It is a spirit of unashamed glamour, excitement and competition . . . We are all here, part of an elite. It is our duty to bear that in mind.” 

Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt, an OUCA president in 1987, made much less noise. Hames sums up: “The Boris appeal was Boris. Michael was interested in ideology and ideas. Jeremy was more a small-c managerial conservative.” 

Hunt wasn’t charismatic or eloquent, and had no obvious political passions, but he was the archetypal head boy (a role he’d held at Charterhouse). An admiral’s son, distant relative of the Queen, tall and courteous, he usually rose above Tory factionalism. After Cherwell reported that a “libertarian faction” was trying to “take over” OUCA, and that one committee member was a “Moonie” (a member of the Unification Church cult), Hunt wrote a letter to the editor: “OUCA remains a moderate association controlled by neither libertarians nor any other faction within the Conservative party, and exists to represent the views of all Conservative students at Oxford.” The Moonie, he added, had been expelled. 

Amid all this Oxford politicking, there was one notable absentee: David Cameron. He got his First, and amused himself in posh dining clubs, but felt no need to do anything so vulgar as burnish his CV with student politics. After all, he too was distantly related to the Queen, his father chaired the establishment club White’s, and his cousin Ferdinand Mount headed Thatcher’s Policy Unit. Cameron went straight from Oxford to the Conservative Party’s research department, where he later encountered his successor in the Bullingdon and future chancellor, George Osborne. 

Rees-Mogg arrived at Oxford at the same time as me in 1988. Almost immediately, Cherwell nominated him (as it had Gove before) for the traditional title of “Pushy Fresher”. The paper printed a photograph of him speechifying in his suit, above the caption, “What more need we say?” 

Studying the picture, you realise: Rees-Mogg hasn’t changed. Like Johnson and Gove, he even has the same hairstyle today. They were almost fully formed at 18. School had given them the confidence, articulacy and know-how to bestride Oxford. They also already knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. If most students back then had had to guess who would be ruling Britain in 2019, they would probably have named Johnson, Gove and Rees-Mogg. 

The last became president of OUCA in 1991, with Cherwell citing his “campaign for world domination and social adequacy”. However, he proved just too peculiar to be elected Union president and lost to Damian Hinds, who is now the education secretary. 

The Oxford Tories were climbing the greasy pole before most students had even located it. The majority arrived at university uncertain, terribly dressed, trying to find themselves, often wrestling with imposter syndrome. Only at Oxford did they acquire the qualities that Johnson et al already had: a ruling-class accent, rhetorical skills and the ability to feel confident in any establishment setting. 

In 1988, British politics changed. The previously pro-European Thatcher suddenly turned Eurosceptic. She had realised that her beloved single market would be accompanied by closer political integration. In her “Bruges speech” in September 1988, she warned against “a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”. 

That idea spooked the Oxford Tories. They revered Britain’s medieval parliament filled with witty English banter, whereas Brussels offered ugly modernism and jargon-ridden Globish. Ruling Britain was their class’s prerogative. It was none of Brussels’ business. In 1990, the future OUCA president Dan Hannan founded the Oxford Campaign for an Independent Britain at the Queen’s Lane Coffee House on the High Street. With hindsight, some see this as the start of the campaign for Brexit. 
Toby Young had written in 1985 that it was lucky the Union existed — “that in an environment as full of ruthless, sociopathic people as Oxford, there should be an institution that sucks them all in, contains all their wilful energy and grants them power only over each other”. He hoped that one day its officers could be similarly contained within the House of Commons. 

But the Commons couldn’t contain them. These people spent years agitating for Brexit. In 2016 they secured their referendum. Johnson sniffed the chance to become prime minister, and — in Union jargon — decided at the last minute to back the motion. Gove is a true believer in Brexit, but his decision to campaign for it — undermining Cameron — was partly an outflow of the Oxford class struggle. As education secretary under Cameron, he had thought they were friends, but when ­Cameron suddenly moved him to chief whip in 2014, Gove was devastated. He felt that Cameron and his coterie of Old Etonians (a stronger network for Cameron than Oxford) had treated him “like staff”, one person in his circle told me. He wanted revenge. 

Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European Studies at Oxford, describes the referendum as “a Union debate with the addition of modern campaigning techniques”. He says, “One of the great things about British public life is that it’s irradiated by a gentle sense of humour — but ‘chaque qualité a ses défauts’ [‘every quality has its downsides’].” In a cross-class alliance with Nigel Farage and the tabloids, the Oxford Tories triumphed. 

Politicians from 1980s Oxford dominated both the Remain and Leave camps, but they were divided by the subject of their degrees. Oxford’s “prime minister’s degree” is PPE: politics, philosophy, economics. It has often been associated with the Brexiters. Ivan Rogers, for instance, a grammar schoolboy in 1980s Oxford and the UK’s permanent representative to the EU until he resigned in 2017, discerned “a very British establishment sort of revolution. No plan and little planning, oodles of PPE tutorial-level plausible bullshit, supreme self-confidence that we understand others’ real interests better than they do . . . ” 

Yet in fact in 2016 the PPEists were almost all Remainers: Cameron, Hunt, Stewart, Philip Hammond, Matt Hancock, Sam Gyimah, Hinds, Nick Boles, the Milibands, Balls, Cooper and Peter Mandelson. They had presumably chosen the degree in search of the cutting-edge knowledge needed to run a modern country. (Fatefully, the one great PPEist Leaver was the media proprietor Rupert Murdoch, who in 1950s Oxford had been business manager of Cherwell and a Labour Club member.) 

By contrast, most Brexiters had studied backward-looking subjects: Classics for Johnson, History for Rees-Mogg and Hannan, and English Literature (which mostly meant the canon) for Gove. They were nostalgics. Hence Johnson’s hagiography of Churchill and Rees-Mogg’s much-mocked recent paean The Victorians, while Gove as education secretary strove to make sure pupils learnt 19th-century literature and Britain’s “island story”. 

After the Oxford Brexiters won the debate, Cameron resigned, and they switched to another familiar format: the in-house leadership election. As one former Union president remarked, the ensuing contest could be described entirely in Union slang: “Boris knifed Dave. Michael knifed Boris. Theresa and Michael stole Boris’s slate. Boris self-binned.” 

May became prime minister, and entrusted the Brexiters with executing Brexit. She gave them the key jobs in cabinet. But they were debaters, not policymakers. They couldn’t debate Brussels into submission, because the EU’s negotiators followed rules. So poorly briefed were the Brexiters that in December 2017 they accepted the principle of a “backstop” plan to keep the Irish border open, before spending the next 18 months fighting it. 

Now the Tories have another leadership election. Second time around, just as at Oxford, Johnson is running a competent and centrist campaign, talking up his liberal reign as mayor of London. Like Sherlock in 1984, Hunt is targeting Johnson’s lack of “seriousness”. Then as now, Gove stands in his hero’s shadow. He needn’t worry: in the Oxford tradition, there may be another election coming along soon.

In the small, insular world of the British establishment, every so often a clique of people can exert an extraordinary influence. There is a curious parallel between the 1980s Oxford Tories and the 1930s Cambridge spies. The charming, blond, dishevelled Etonian sybarite Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross also emerged from an intimate, all-male, public-school network. Four of them were at Trinity College, with Maclean next door at Trinity Hall. Confident enough to formulate a revolutionary worldview despite being ill-informed, they embraced a utopian cause: Soviet communism. It promised a far-off paradise that they never expected to live in themselves. Working towards it was great fun.

There is a similar element of play in Tory Brexit. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, chastised Rees-Mogg last year: “This is not a parlour game or debating society. These are real people with real lives.” Well, that’s what she thinks. 

The Cambridge Five were given roles of responsibility because they possessed elite CVs and came across as archetypal British gentlemen (partly through displays of eccentricity in hairstyles, drink and dress). They pursued their utopia for decades, ignoring all evidence that contradicted it and looking down on the rest of the establishment for its unimaginative thinking. When the spies were finally exposed, British trust in the establishment suffered a lasting dent. 

Admittedly, the comparison between the Cambridge and Oxford sets isn’t entirely fair: though both betrayed Britain’s interests to the benefit of Moscow, the Brexiters didn’t mean to. 

It’s an odd feeling to return to a town that you have barely seen in 25 years but where you know every street. Oxford looks almost unchanged, yet the time-traveller from the 1980s experiences a series of small shocks: there are Chinese tourists! Students sit in coffee shops working on laptops! The food is decent! 

Wandering around my old college, I marvelled at the Chinese and German names at the bottom of staircases. There are far more applicants to places nowadays, lazy alcoholic tutors are dying out, and rubbing along on “no hours a week” is no longer tolerated.  

But the Union, weekly tutorials and therefore the outsize role of rhetoric survive. Is there some soul-searching at the university over the triumph of the Oxford Brexiters? “I think there should be,” replies Garton Ash. He exempts the tutorial system from blame: “Having an hour a week with an expert on the field cross-examining you — that doesn’t seem to me to lead to glibness.” 

But he adds, “Public schools and the culture around them provide a training in superficial articulacy: essay writing, public speaking, carrying it off. The Oxford Union reinforces that, even among those who didn’t go to public school. Compare and contrast the German elite. For me, Gove is the ultimate example.” Garton Ash says Oxford as an academic institution no longer encourages this style. 

Kalypso Nicolaïdis, professor of international relations, says: “If a student is capable of producing two well-written essays a week, with well-structured arguments, they can kind of get away with not knowing much about the subjects. This may sound superficial, but communicating is useful in life. Sometimes you need to convince people succinctly, especially if you go into politics.” 

But, she adds, “it’s not what Oxford is about. I believe most colleagues would agree that our commitment is to convey knowledge as deeply as possible. Whether as a student you want to take advantage of this is up to you.” 

I deplore what my contemporaries are doing to Britain. But given that I too learnt at Oxford how to write and speak for a living without much knowledge, I can hardly talk.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Vyleesi: latest attempt at 'female Viagra' approved by US regulators

Pharmaceutical known chemically as bremelanotide is aimed at women with low sexual desire disorder or HSDD

Guardian Staff and agencies 

An auto-injector for Vyleesi, chemically known as bremelanotide. Photograph: AP

Drug regulators in the United States have approved Vyleesi, the latest attempt to come up with a “female Viagra” for women with low sexual desire.

Vyleesi, chemically known as bremelanotide, is said to activate pathways in the brain involved in sexual desire, helping premenopausal women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD). It has been developed by Palatin Technologies and licensed to Amag Pharmaceuticals, and is expected to be available from September through select pharmacies.

The drug will compete with Sprout Pharmaceuticals’ Addyi, a once-daily pill that was approved for HSDD in 2015 with a warning restricting alcohol use when on the medication. Addyi was approved under intense pressure from advocacy groups despite a review by scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that deemed it minimally effective and possibly unsafe.

Vyleesi, which does not restrict alcohol use, is seen as having several advantages over Addyi including tolerable side effects, rapid-acting nature and not having to be taken every day, according to analysts.

The drug is administered as a shot into the abdomen or thigh using an auto-injector at least 45 minutes before anticipated sexual activity, with the FDA recommending patients not to take more than one dose within 24 hours or more than eight doses per month.

Side effects reported during clinical trials included mild to moderate nausea lasting no more than two hours and mostly occurred over the first three doses, Amag said. About 40% of patients in clinical trials experienced nausea.

The drug was developed by Palatin, and Amag holds exclusive North America sales rights. Palatin will get $60m from Amag for the approval plus additional payments for certain sales milestones and royalties.

Analysts have said that a drug that safely and effectively treats loss of sexual desire in women could eventually reach annual sales of about $1 billion.

Friday, 14 June 2019

Pakistan's Political Instability

The mindfulness conspiracy - Is Meditation the enemy of Activism?

It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism. By Ronald Purser in The Guardian 

Mindfulness has gone mainstream, with celebrity endorsement from Oprah Winfrey and Goldie Hawn. Meditation coaches, monks and neuroscientists went to Davos to impart the finer points to CEOs attending the World Economic Forum. The founders of the mindfulness movement have grown evangelical. Prophesying that its hybrid of science and meditative discipline “has the potential to ignite a universal or global renaissance”, the inventor of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, has bigger ambitions than conquering stress. Mindfulness, he proclaims, “may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple of hundred years”.

So, what exactly is this magic panacea? In 2014, Time magazine put a youthful blonde woman on its cover, blissing out above the words: “The Mindful Revolution.” The accompanying feature described a signature scene from the standardised course teaching MBSR: eating a raisin very slowly. “The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st century,” the author explained.

But anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary – it just helps people cope. In fact, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, mindfulness says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. And yet mindfulness zealots believe that paying closer attention to the present moment without passing judgment has the revolutionary power to transform the whole world. It’s magical thinking on steroids.

There are certainly worthy dimensions to mindfulness practice. Tuning out mental rumination does help reduce stress, as well as chronic anxiety and many other maladies. Becoming more aware of automatic reactions can make people calmer and potentially kinder. Most of the promoters of mindfulness are nice, and having personally met many of them, including the leaders of the movement, I have no doubt that their hearts are in the right place. But that isn’t the issue here. The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged. Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.

What remains is a tool of self-discipline, disguised as self-help. Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems. A truly revolutionary movement would seek to overturn this dysfunctional system, but mindfulness only serves to reinforce its destructive logic. The neoliberal order has imposed itself by stealth in the past few decades, widening inequality in pursuit of corporate wealth. People are expected to adapt to what this model demands of them. Stress has been pathologised and privatised, and the burden of managing it outsourced to individuals. Hence the pedlars of mindfulness step in to save the day.

But none of this means that mindfulness ought to be banned, or that anyone who finds it useful is deluded. Reducing suffering is a noble aim and it should be encouraged. But to do this effectively, teachers of mindfulness need to acknowledge that personal stress also has societal causes. By failing to address collective suffering, and systemic change that might remove it, they rob mindfulness of its real revolutionary potential, reducing it to something banal that keeps people focused on themselves.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is often called the father of modern mindfulness. Photograph: Sarah Lee

The fundamental message of the mindfulness movement is that the underlying cause of dissatisfaction and distress is in our heads. By failing to pay attention to what actually happens in each moment, we get lost in regrets about the past and fears for the future, which make us unhappy. Kabat-Zinn, who is often labelled the father of modern mindfulness, calls this a “thinking disease”. Learning to focus turns down the volume on circular thought, so Kabat-Zinn’s diagnosis is that our “entire society is suffering from attention deficit disorder – big time”. Other sources of cultural malaise are not discussed. The only mention of the word “capitalist” in Kabat-Zinn’s book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness occurs in an anecdote about a stressed investor who says: “We all suffer a kind of ADD.”

Mindfulness advocates, perhaps unwittingly, are providing support for the status quo. Rather than discussing how attention is monetised and manipulated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple, they locate the crisis in our minds. It is not the nature of the capitalist system that is inherently problematic; rather, it is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. Then they sell us solutions that make us contented, mindful capitalists.
By practising mindfulness, individual freedom is supposedly found within “pure awareness”, undistracted by external corrupting influences. All we need to do is close our eyes and watch our breath. And that’s the crux of the supposed revolution: the world is slowly changed, one mindful individual at a time. This political philosophy is oddly reminiscent of George W Bush’s “compassionate conservatism”. With the retreat to the private sphere, mindfulness becomes a religion of the self. The idea of a public sphere is being eroded, and any trickledown effect of compassion is by chance. As a result, notes the political theorist Wendy Brown, “the body politic ceases to be a body, but is, rather, a group of individual entrepreneurs and consumers”.

Mindfulness, like positive psychology and the broader happiness industry, has depoliticised stress. If we are unhappy about being unemployed, losing our health insurance, and seeing our children incur massive debt through college loans, it is our responsibility to learn to be more mindful. Kabat-Zinn assures us that “happiness is an inside job” that simply requires us to attend to the present moment mindfully and purposely without judgment. Another vocal promoter of meditative practice, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson, contends that “wellbeing is a skill” that can be trained, like working out one’s biceps at the gym. The so-called mindfulness revolution meekly accepts the dictates of the marketplace. Guided by a therapeutic ethos aimed at enhancing the mental and emotional resilience of individuals, it endorses neoliberal assumptions that everyone is free to choose their responses, manage negative emotions, and “flourish” through various modes of self-care. Framing what they offer in this way, most teachers of mindfulness rule out a curriculum that critically engages with causes of suffering in the structures of power and economic systems of capitalist society.

The term “McMindfulness” was coined by Miles Neale, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, who described “a feeding frenzy of spiritual practices that provide immediate nutrition but no long-term sustenance”. The contemporary mindfulness fad is the entrepreneurial equal of McDonald’s. The founder of McDonald’s, Ray Kroc, created the fast food industry. Very early on, when he was selling milkshakes, Kroc spotted the franchising potential of a restaurant chain in San Bernadino, California. He made a deal to serve as the franchising agent for the McDonald brothers. Soon afterwards, he bought them out, and grew the chain into a global empire. Kabat-Zinn, a dedicated meditator, had a vision in the midst of a retreat: he could adapt Buddhist teachings and practices to help hospital patients deal with physical pain, stress and anxiety. His masterstroke was the branding of mindfulness as a secular spirituality.

Kroc saw his chance to provide busy Americans with instant access to food that would be delivered consistently through automation, standardisation and discipline. Kabat-Zinn perceived the opportunity to give stressed-out Americans easy access to MBSR through an eight-week mindfulness course for stress reduction that would be taught consistently using a standardised curriculum. MBSR teachers would gain certification by attending programmes at Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness in Worcester, Massachusetts. He continued to expand the reach of MBSR by identifying new markets such as corporations, schools, government and the military, and endorsing other forms of “mindfulness-based interventions” (MBIs).

Both men took measures to ensure that their products would not vary in quality or content across franchises. Burgers and fries at McDonald’s are the same whether one is eating them in Dubai or in Dubuque. Similarly, there is little variation in the content, structuring and curriculum of MBSR courses around the world.

Illustration: Patryk Sroczyński

Mindfulness has been oversold and commodified, reduced to a technique for just about any instrumental purpose. It can give inner-city kids a calming time-out, or hedge-fund traders a mental edge, or reduce the stress of military drone pilots. Void of a moral compass or ethical commitments, unmoored from a vision of the social good, the commodification of mindfulness keeps it anchored in the ethos of the market.

This has come about partly because proponents of mindfulness believe that the practice is apolitical, and so the avoidance of moral inquiry and the reluctance to consider a vision of the social good are intertwined. It is simply assumed that ethical behaviour will arise “naturally” from practice and the teacher’s “embodiment” of soft-spoken niceness, or through the happenstance of self-discovery. However, the claim that major ethical changes will follow from “paying attention to the present moment, non-judgmentally” is patently flawed. The emphasis on “non-judgmental awareness” can just as easily disable one’s moral intelligence.

In Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King argue that traditions of Asian wisdom have been subject to colonisation and commodification since the 18th century, producing a highly individualistic spirituality, perfectly accommodated to dominant cultural values and requiring no substantive change in lifestyle. Such an individualistic spirituality is clearly linked with the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, especially when masked by the ambiguous language used in mindfulness. Market forces are already exploiting the momentum of the mindfulness movement, reorienting its goals to a highly circumscribed individual realm.

Mindfulness is easily co-opted and reduced to merely “pacifying feelings of anxiety and disquiet at the individual level, rather than seeking to challenge the social, political and economic inequalities that cause such distress”, write Carrette and King. But a commitment to this kind of privatised and psychologised mindfulness is political – therapeutically optimising individuals to make them “mentally fit”, attentive and resilient, so they may keep functioning within the system. Such capitulation seems like the farthest thing from a revolution – more like a quietist surrender.

Mindfulness is positioned as a force that can help us cope with the noxious influences of capitalism. But because what it offers is so easily assimilated by the market, its potential for social and political transformation is neutered. Leaders in the mindfulness movement believe that capitalism and spirituality can be reconciled; they want to relieve the stress of individuals without having to look deeper and more broadly at its causes.

Mindfulness is being sold to executives as a way to de-stress, focus and bounce back from working 80-hour weeks

A truly revolutionary mindfulness would challenge the western sense of entitlement to happiness irrespective of ethical conduct. However, mindfulness programmes do not ask executives to examine how their managerial decisions and corporate policies have institutionalised greed, ill will and delusion. Instead, the practice is being sold to executives as a way to de-stress, improve productivity and focus, and bounce back from working 80-hour weeks. They may well be “meditating”, but it works like taking an aspirin for a headache. Once the pain goes away, it is business as usual. Even if individuals become nicer people, the corporate agenda of maximising profits does not change.

If mindfulness just helps people cope with the toxic conditions that make them stressed in the first place, then perhaps we could aim a bit higher. Should we celebrate the fact that this perversion is helping people to “auto-exploit” themselves? This is the core of the problem. The internalisation of focus for mindfulness practice also leads to other things being internalised, from corporate requirements to structures of dominance in society. Perhaps worst of all, this submissive position is framed as freedom. Indeed, mindfulness thrives on doublespeak about freedom, celebrating self-centered “freedoms” while paying no attention to civic responsibility, or the cultivation of a collective mindfulness that finds genuine freedom within a co-operative and just society.

Of course, reductions in stress and increases in personal happiness and wellbeing are much easier to sell than serious questions about injustice, inequity and environmental devastation. The latter involve a challenge to the social order, while the former play directly to mindfulness’s priorities – sharpening people’s focus, improving their performance at work and in exams, and even promising better sex lives. Not only has mindfulness been repackaged as a novel technique of psychotherapy, but its utility is commercially marketed as self-help. This branding reinforces the notion that spiritual practices are indeed an individual’s private concern. And once privatised, these practices are easily co-opted for social, economic and political control.

Rather than being used as a means to awaken individuals and organisations to the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, mindfulness is more often refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots.

Mindfulness is said to be a $4bn industry. More than 60,000 books for sale on Amazon have a variant of “mindfulness” in their title, touting the benefits of Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, Mindful Finance, a Mindful Nation, and Mindful Dog Owners, to name just a few. There is also The Mindfulness Colouring Book, part of a bestselling subgenre in itself. Besides books, there are workshops, online courses, glossy magazines, documentary films, smartphone apps, bells, cushions, bracelets, beauty products and other paraphernalia, as well as a lucrative and burgeoning conference circuit. Mindfulness programmes have made their way into schools, Wall Street and Silicon Valley corporations, law firms, and government agencies, including the US military.

The presentation of mindfulness as a market-friendly palliative explains its warm reception in popular culture. It slots so neatly into the mindset of the workplace that its only real threat to the status quo is to offer people ways to become more skilful at the rat race. Modern society’s neoliberal consensus argues that those who enjoy power and wealth should be given free rein to accumulate more. It’s perhaps no surprise that those mindfulness merchants who accept market logic are a hit with the CEOs in Davos, where Kabat-Zinn has no qualms about preaching the gospel of competitive advantage from meditative practice.

Over the past few decades, neoliberalism has outgrown its conservative roots. It has hijacked public discourse to the extent that even self-professed progressives, such as Kabat-Zinn, think in neoliberal terms. Market values have invaded every corner of human life, defining how most of us are forced to interpret and live in the world.

Perhaps the most straightforward definition of neoliberalism comes from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who calls it “a programme for destroying collective structures that may impede the pure market logic”. We are generally conditioned to think that a market-based society provides us with ample (if not equal) opportunities for increasing the value of our “human capital” and self-worth. And in order to fully actualise personal freedom and potential, we need to maximise our own welfare, freedom, and happiness by deftly managing internal resources.

Since competition is so central, neoliberal ideology holds that all decisions about how society is run should be left to the workings of the marketplace, the most efficient mechanism for allowing competitors to maximise their own good. Other social actors – including the state, voluntary associations, and the like – are just obstacles to the smooth operation of market logic.

Illustration: Patryk Sroczyński

For an actor in neoliberal society, mindfulness is a skill to be cultivated, or a resource to be put to use. When mastered, it helps you to navigate the capitalist ocean’s tricky currents, keeping your attention “present-centred and non-judgmental” to deal with the inevitable stress and anxiety from competition. Mindfulness helps you to maximise your personal wellbeing.

All of this may help you to sleep better at night. But the consequences for society are potentially dire. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has analysed this trend. As he sees it, mindfulness is “establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism”, by helping people “to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity”.

By deflecting attention from the social structures and material conditions in a capitalist culture, mindfulness is easily co-opted. Celebrity role models bless and endorse it, while Californian companies including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Zynga have embraced it as an adjunct to their brand. Google’s former in-house mindfulness tsar Chade-Meng Tan had the actual job title Jolly Good Fellow. “Search inside yourself,” he counselled colleagues and readers – for there, not in corporate culture – lies the source of your problems.

The rhetoric of “self-mastery”, “resilience” and “happiness” assumes wellbeing is simply a matter of developing a skill. Mindfulness cheerleaders are particularly fond of this trope, saying we can train our brains to be happy, like exercising muscles. Happiness, freedom and wellbeing become the products of individual effort. Such so-called “skills” can be developed without reliance on external factors, relationships or social conditions. Underneath its therapeutic discourse, mindfulness subtly reframes problems as the outcomes of choices. Personal troubles are never attributed to political or socioeconomic conditions, but are always psychological in nature and diagnosed as pathologies. Society therefore needs therapy, not radical change. This is perhaps why mindfulness initiatives have become so attractive to government policymakers. Societal problems rooted in inequality, racism, poverty, addiction and deteriorating mental health can be reframed in terms of individual psychology, requiring therapeutic help. Vulnerable subjects can even be told to provide this themselves.

Neoliberalism divides the world into winners and losers. It accomplishes this task through its ideological linchpin: the individualisation of all social phenomena. Since the autonomous (and free) individual is the primary focal point for society, social change is achieved not through political protest, organising and collective action, but via the free market and atomised actions of individuals. Any effort to change this through collective structures is generally troublesome to the neoliberal order. It is therefore discouraged.

An illustrative example is the practice of recycling. The real problem is the mass production of plastics by corporations, and their overuse in retail. However, consumers are led to believe that being personally wasteful is the underlying issue, which can be fixed if they change their habits. As a recent essay in Scientific American scoffs: “Recycling plastic is to saving the Earth what hammering a nail is to halting a falling skyscraper.” Yet the neoliberal doctrine of individual responsibility has performed its sleight-of-hand, distracting us from the real culprit. This is far from new. In the 1950s, the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign urged individuals to pick up their trash. The project was bankrolled by corporations such as Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Phillip Morris, in partnership with the public service announcement Ad Council, which coined the term “litterbug” to shame miscreants. Two decades later, a famous TV ad featured a Native American man weeping at the sight of a motorist dumping garbage. “People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It,” was the slogan. The essay in Scientific American, by Matt Wilkins, sees through such charades.

To change the world, we are told to work on ourselves – to change our minds by being more accepting of circumstances

At face value, these efforts seem benevolent, but they obscure the real problem, which is the role that corporate polluters play in the plastic problem. This clever misdirection has led journalist and author Heather Rogers to describe Keep America Beautiful as the first corporate greenwashing front, as it has helped shift the public focus to consumer recycling behaviour and thwarted legislation that would increase extended producer responsibility for waste management.

We are repeatedly sold the same message: that individual action is the only real way to solve social problems, so we should take responsibility. We are trapped in a neoliberal trance by what the education scholar Henry Giroux calls a “disimagination machine”, because it stifles critical and radical thinking. We are admonished to look inward, and to manage ourselves. Disimagination impels us to abandon creative ideas about new possibilities. Instead of seeking to dismantle capitalism, or rein in its excesses, we should accept its demands and use self-discipline to be more effective in the market. To change the world, we are told to work on ourselves — to change our minds by being more mindful, nonjudgmental, and accepting of circumstances.

It is a fundamental tenet of neoliberal mindfulness, that the source of people’s problems is found in their heads. This has been accentuated by the pathologising and medicalisation of stress, which then requires a remedy and expert treatment – in the form of mindfulness interventions. The ideological message is that if you cannot alter the circumstances causing distress, you can change your reactions to your circumstances. In some ways, this can be helpful, since many things are not in our control. But to abandon all efforts to fix them seems excessive. Mindfulness practices do not permit critique or debate of what might be unjust, culturally toxic or environmentally destructive. Rather, the mindful imperative to “accept things as they are” while practising “nonjudgmental, present moment awareness” acts as a social anesthesia, preserving the status quo.

The mindfulness movement’s promise of “human flourishing” (which is also the rallying cry of positive psychology) is the closest it comes to defining a vision of social change. However, this vision remains individualised and depends on the personal choice to be more mindful. Mindfulness practitioners may of course have a very different political agenda to that of neoliberalism, but the risk is that they start to retreat into their own private worlds and particular identities — which is just where the neoliberal power structures want them.

Mindfulness practice is embedded in what Jennifer Silva calls the “mood economy”. In Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, Silva explains that, like the privatisation of risk, a mood economy makes “individuals solely responsible for their emotional fates”. In such a political economy of affect, emotions are regulated as a means to enhance one’s “emotional capital”. At Google’s Search Inside Yourself mindfulness programme, emotional intelligence (EI) figures prominently in the curriculum. The programme is marketed to Google engineers as instrumental to their career success — by engaging in mindfulness practice, managing emotions generates surplus economic value, equivalent to the acquisition of capital. The mood economy also demands the ability to bounce back from setbacks to stay productive in a precarious economic context. Like positive psychology, the mindfulness movement has merged with the “science of happiness”. Once packaged in this way, it can be sold as a technique for personal life-hacking optimisation, disembedding individuals from social worlds.

From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over

All the promises of mindfulness resonate with what the University of Chicago cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls “cruel optimism”, a defining neoliberal characteristic. It is cruel in that one makes affective investments in what amount to fantasies. We are told that if we practice mindfulness, and get our individual lives in order, we can be happy and secure. It is therefore implied that stable employment, home ownership, social mobility, career success and equality will naturally follow. We are also promised that we can gain self-mastery, controlling our minds and emotions so we can thrive and flourish amid the vagaries of capitalism.As Joshua Eisen, the author of Mindful Calculations, puts it: “Like kale, acai berries, gym memberships, vitamin water, and other new year’s resolutions, mindfulness indexes a profound desire to change, but one premised on a fundamental reassertion of neoliberal fantasies of self-control and unfettered agency.” We just have to sit in silence, watching our breath, and wait. It is doubly cruel because these normative fantasies of the “good life” are already crumbling under neoliberalism, and we make it worse if we focus individually on our feelings. Neglecting shared vulnerabilities and interdependence, we disimagine the collective ways we might protect ourselves. And despite the emptiness of nurturing fantasies, we continue to cling to them.

Mindfulness isn’t cruel in and of itself. It’s only cruel when fetishised and attached to inflated promises. It is then, as Berlant points out, that “the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially”. The cruelty lies in supporting the status quo while using the language of transformation. This is how neoliberal mindfulness promotes an individualistic vision of human flourishing, enticing us to accept things as they are, mindfully enduring the ravages of capitalism.