Just another site

Monthly Archives: January 2014

Not psychology: early 19th Century analysis of modern issues

I’ve been reading EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (Gollancz, 1980) in an attempt to make up for the weaknesses of my academic education in the 1950s and 60s. Not having had the benefit of having been taught in a modern comprehensive, my history knowledge derives mainly from Time Team and Blackadder (I note that Michael Gove hasn’t objected to Blackadder’s portrayal of Elizabeth 1 and the Prince Regent, so I guess he thinks those are pretty accurate).

I’ve been really struck by how precisely things people wrote 200 years ago mirror modern issues. Perhaps if I knew more history, it wouldn’t be so striking – but perhaps if many modern commentators knew more history, they would have more sensible things to say about these modern issues.
So (p225 in the 1980 edition): “Thus as early as 1817 the Leicester framework knitters put forward, in a series of resolutions, an under-consumption theory of capitalist crisis”, which could be seen as support for raising the minimum wage, and a criticism of the global race to the bottom in wage rates:

  • That in proportion as the Reduction of Wages makes the great Body of the People poor and wretched, in the same proportion must the consumption of our manufacturers be lessened.
  • That if liberal Wages were given to the Mechanics in general throughout the Country, the Home Consumption of our Manufactures would be immediately more than doubled, and consequently every hand would soon find full employment.
  • That to Reduce the Wage of the Mechanic in this Country so low that he cannot live by his labour, in order to undersell Foreign Manufacturers in a Foreign Market, is to gain one customer abroad, and lose two at home ..

And the benefits system works in the favour of employers to subsidise wages, and to maintain a pool of workers for zero-hours contracts (p244):

…a country magistrate in 1800 […] went on to argue that the poor-rates, by maintaining a surplus population and encouraging marriages – thereby ensuring a supply of labour in excess of demand – brought down the total wages bill. Indeed, he showed himself a pioneer in the science of ‘averages’:
‘Let us suppose the annual poor-rates, and the amount of wages throughout England added together in one total; I think this total would be less than the sole amount of the wages, if the poor-rates had not existed.’
The motives which led to the introduction of the various systems of poor-relief which related relief to the price of bread and to the number of children were no doubt various. The Speenhamland decision of 1795 was impelled by both humanity and necessity. But the perpetuation of Speenhamland and ’roundsman’ systems, in all their variety, was ensured by the demand of the larger farmers – in an industry which has exceptional requirements for occasional or casual labour – for a permanent cheap labour reserve.

And, in the eyes of employers and the comfortably off, the countryside in 1800 was pretty much like Benefits Street. The same prejudiced ranting that you’ll find in the modern right-wing press was visible than, too. Depressing.
243: from the Commercial and Agricultural Magazine, October 1800:

[The village poor are] ‘designing rogues, who, under various pretences, attempt to cheat the parish’ and ‘their whole abilities are exerted in the execution of deceit, which may procure from the parish officers an allowance of money for idle and profligate purposes’.

..and by 1816, the human rights menace from Brussels (or at least Paris) had been added (p246):

‘In regard to the poor-rates,’ one Bedfordshire ‘feelosofer’ (Dr Macqueen) wrote to the Board of Agriculture in 1816, ‘I always view these as coupled with the idleness and depravity of the working class:
The morals as well as the manners of the lower orders of the community have been degenerating since the earliest ages of the French Revolution. The doctrine of equality and the rights of man is not yet forgotten, but fondly cherished and reluctantly abandoned. They consider their respective parishes as their right and inheritance, in which they are entitled to resort …’

I guess the poor are always with us, and so always need to be slagged off by those who benefit from maintaining their poverty, in order to justify to themselves and others what is done to maintain that poverty (we psychologists call it Dissonance Reduction).
Later in the 19th century, I believe (haven’t got that far in the book yet), these lower orders and mechanics organised themselves and affected some improvement in their conditions. Might that happen this century?

Mind? Brain? As a psychologist, who cares?

This started out as an overlong comment on Facebook, in response to some posts by Andrew Dunn and Colin Johnson about the brain-mind problem. Thanks, as always, to Andrew and Colin for giving me interesting things to think about. The starting point for the discussion was a video clip ( suggesting that we can see mind as an emergent feature of brain, and/or that we can think of mind as being like software and brain like hardware. Both of those are ideas worth considering, and I find the software/hardware analogy quite alluring, though it doesn’t quite hold up or explain anything if you look at it closely, but then I thought: is this my problem? As a psychologist (and as an everyday walking-around person), the issue is mind (conscious awareness) and only mind. Phenomenologically, the *only* thing that exists for me is my mind/consciousness/awareness/experience, so that is the core reality. OK, from some outside perspective mind might be an epiphenomenon of brain activity, but for me, the brain activity is more of an epiphenomenon of my existence. I know that changes in brain activity affect my experience (vascular dementia, alcohol, whatever it is that makes me left-handed, which does seem to be related to other characteristics), and I will sometimes deliberately mess with my brain to affect my experience (alcohol), and maybe some things about my brain make that more or less dangerous for me than for others (addiction-prone or -resistant brain structures?)– but the only thing that’s actually going on for me is my experience. It would be fascinating to know something about the machinery of that experience, and that knowledge could be used to change my experience – as we now know enough about exercise physiology to bio-engineer athletic performance – but the brain things I might do with that knowledge would be mind-driven and mind-purposed. In the original discussion, Colin pointed out that that the bit we’re aware of is only a tiny fraction of all the things the brain does (absolutely right), and said “..and we are then supposed to induce that that small channel of neural activity is what makes you ‘you’? – nonsense”, and that’s right at one level – but at the level of my lived experience, me being “me” is the only game in town. I have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of ‘me’ and ‘not-me’, and once I’ve done that I can’t be brain activity: there has to be a mind. All I have is my experience, and all that that is built on is my experience, and where that experience might come from is interesting, entertaining, and possibly useful, but it doesn’t stop my experience being my experience. So, although it might be possible to solve the problem of mind “by the objective and experimental analysis of the brain proper” (quote from Colin again), the only point of doing that, as a human, would be to satisfy our curiosity about how we work, or to use the information to modify our experience – so it remains an experiential, mind-governed enterprise. Actually, there’s also the problem of the inbuilt indeterminacy of the systems involved, which might make the problem insoluble in engineering terms (see but it’s still worth trying). As an ex-physiologist, I’m fascinated by this stuff, just as I remember being mightily impressed by cross-current filtration in the kidney, and how that’s paralleled by cross-current heat exchangers in birds’ legs, but my real involvement in kidney physiology is having to get up to go to the toilet, or discussions and feelings about my friend’s experience of kidney failure. So, this is a claim for psychologists to be interested in mind-type things, and only bother about the brain where it clearly does impose on conscious experience, just as we only bother about society when it impinges from the other direction. Physiology and sociology and politics are fine, but they’re not really the appropriate level of analysis for a lot of what goes on with people (they are the right level of analysis for some other things that go on). This argument seems to me to be very similar to the resolution of Descartian doubt – how can I be sure that what I think I’m experiencing is what’s really going on? Well, if what I’m experiencing is all I can experience, who cares? Unless I’m being offered a choice between blue and red pills, I might as well – actually, I need to – get on with living that (possibly illusory) experience – what else could I do? As with the ‘let psychology be psychology’ argument above, there is some leakage from other realities: study of optical illusions shows a fracture between two versions of available reality, and you could see irrational dissonance reduction or Freudian repression and defence mechanisms as evidence of other fractures – and useful in casting light on what the ‘sum’ of ‘cogito ergo sum’ is, but still, there’s enough existential doubt around, for goodness sake, without actually needing to doubt one’s existence.

As The Man (Lao-Tzu) said: Open yourself to the Tao, then trust your natural responses; and everything will fall into place (Tao Te Ching 23, translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)

This was written at the turn of 2013/14, and if you’ve persisted this far, I wish you all a very Happy New Year – but remember that while the occurrence of New Year’s Day is, of course, entirely objectively explainable in terms of the chronology of the Gregorian calendar and the cosmology of the solar system, the irresponsible saturnalia driven by existential despair which goes on on New Year’s Eve (I can hear it going on next door as I write) is entirely mind- and consciousness-driven.