(C)Ken Heyman-Woodfin Camp and Associates B.F. Skinner. CH-745-003-A.

Covid-19: The nanny state and Skinner’s behavioural conditioning 

B.F. Skinner in his lab

One of the interesting phenomena associated with the virus lockdown is the alacrity with which certain people have embraced the whole notion of extending state control over further parts of civil society and individual behaviour.

It is also noteworthy that far from this being opposed by the left, many of that persuasion have embraced all of this enthusiastically and indeed called for its extension. I was amused when several days ago I read a social media post by one of the ideologues of armed dissident republicanism – God help us – who embrace some retro Stalinist nonsense. He was attacking another republican for questioning the continuance of the lockdown and reeled off a series of British state measures including abortion of which these comic opera revolutionaries approve.

Clearly some see the radical extension of state surveillance and control as a means to promote their particular vision of what human society ought to look like.

While the original socialist utopians of the 19th century like Fourier and Owen and Saint Simon were motivated by economic inequalities, the utopians who share most with the current nanny statists are of more recent vintage. The behaviourist psychologist B.F Skinner is a particularly apt example.

Skinner rejected the idea that humans had free will, and regarded reinforcement as the means to encourage good behaviour by punishing bad actions and rewarding good ones. He sought to “repair the major damage wrought by mentalism” which he defined and dismissed as any implication that humans had an “inner life” that guided the way they interacted with the world.

Most of Skinner’s experiments were with non-human animals especially rats who were tortured into doing what he wanted them to do. For their own good obviously. He did try to use his ‘operant conditioning chamber’ on infants, including his own daughter.

In a novel Walden II published in 1948, Skinner set out his vision of a perfect society. While his objectives seem benign they were to be achieved through the conditioning of children and the strict control of all aspects of individual lives.

That extended to the communal rearing of children and the use of dormitories and canteens to replace people sleeping together and eating together as families. The Khmer Rouge meets Father Knows Best in Eisenhower’s America. Errant behaviour would be discouraged by an all persuasive “community” surveillance and reporting.

Skinner’s adoption of Walden as the title for the book was a reference to Henry David Thoreau’s book of the same name published in 1849. It was an unlikely inspiration given that in his essay on ‘Civil Disobedience’ of the same year, Thoreau set forth a libertarian model of a minimalist state which recognized the individual as a higher authority.

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) Skinner claimed that the ideal society could only be created by controlling and altering where required all the environmental variables to find those best suited to the creation of tame, malleable subjects.

While membership of his utopia, in common with those of the utopian socialists, was to be initially voluntary it was to be rigidly structured and controlled which of course begs the question as to who were the controllers. The real revolutionaries like Lenin dispensed with all that happy-clappy stuff and relied on terror from the outset.

There were some attempts to create communities after Skinner’s model. One, Twin Oaks in Virginia, has survived as a co-operative without any of the behavioural conditioning. Another, Comunidad los Horcones in Mexico remains true to the vision and its members disturbingly refer to Skinner as Abuelo, grandfather.

Skinner signed the 1973 Humanist Manifesto which was explicitly atheist, pro-abortion and opposed to nation states. In their place they wanted to see the “… development of a system of world law and a world order based upon transnational federal government.” (American Humanist Association site). They also stressed the need to protect the environment.

Finally, it is perhaps worth mentioning in the context of the current virus crisis, that Skinner saw health as one of the main keys to creating the new person. Part of that was to minimize the gathering of people in crowds and to isolate infants – to reduce infections.

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