Pavlov and Politics (from The Pavlove Chronicle, 2006)
You won’t find Pavlov and Mendel in the Pelican Guide to Global Culture (PGGC, 1996). Marx and Freud are in but their ideas were no longer seen as dangerous. Marx had passed into history (or the end of it), Freud superseded by a Jungian army of self-help gurus. His house in London off the Finchley Road is a museum. His legacy is plots in fifties movies we will never see again, and a galaxy of talented grandchildren. One of them is a top-dog public relations man divorced from Murdoch’s likely heir and the rest write novels or host chat-shows.
Pavlov and Mendel, the fathers respectively of behaviourism and eugenics, are so deeply embedded in the present age that they can be taken for granted. In the sixties my friend Joab Comfort saw the behaviour that they inspired as a totalitarian tool, dismissing Eysenck and Skinner as its undercover agents enabling racism. His Sussex University colleagues espoused a return to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s non-determinist philosophy. None of them made the Pelican Guide. Seemingly they cancelled one another out.
I sympathised with Leibniz’s concentration on nurture, but, like Voltaire with Pangloss, I found his optimisme hard to take until I acquired my first mechanical calculator, a converted cash-register with a bell. When Joab told me Leibniz had invented the first one three hundred years ago, I gave his ideas a second chance. I read his L’Origine du Mal and still found him about as convincing as Donizetti’s Dulcamara with his elixir. But I liked his idea of creating an alphabet of thought, based on symbols, which would initiate automatic thinking and the truth. 'He never completed his universal language, deciding an infinite number of symbols would be necessary. The oracular computer would have to wait.
Returning to numbers, differential calculus diverted Leibniz into a proto atomic theology. Newton’s dy/dx, the breakdown of the infinitesimal, got him not only into trouble for plagiarism, but challenged his research methods. In them imaginative theories had taken over: the basic life force was the monad, a faery substance that defied space, matter and motion. Monads did not interact with one another. But God came to the rescue. His blueprint harmonised the monads, holding the world together. And so, everything that happens in life was ‘all for the best in all possible worlds’. Things only needed to be let be.
The Post-Industrial-Global-Oligarchy (PIGO) could not possibly agree with Leibniz. It has a world to exploit. PIGO allows scientists to progress Pavlov’s practical application of Mendel, using people instead of dogs (and indeed peas). This predominant ethic promotes the standardisation of what people should be allowed to want. Thus producing a world of consumer slaves to satisfy PIGO’s insatiable needs. And the result is not just a generic product, but the same one repackaged as brands to offer a spurious choice.
Pavlov got his dogs to salivate when he rang the dinner bell. They were expecting a meal. Coca-Cola, a leading product of PIGO, conditioned people to salivate at the expectation of a quasi-cocaine stimulant. All they were getting was fizzy sugar. Still, they were hooked. Pavlov went too far with his dogs. He injected belladonna (deadly nightshade) to dry up their gastric glands. When the bell rang, the dogs salivated. But their dry stomachs couldn’t keep down the food, and so they vomited and went crazy, biting one another with the frustration of unrequited hunger. He restored their gastric flow and rang the bell again, offering them food. This time, though they salivated as usual, they refused the meal. Stupid dogs, Pavlov said. But they were cleverer than their master. They had learned their lesson from the dry meal.
At college we played a pub game one could not lose. We wagered that nobody could eat a packet of cream crackers dry. Despite common knowledge, students took up the challenge. They couldn’t believe a quarter pound of biscuit could beat them. Few got down more than half as their saliva dried up and their stomachs revolted. They might as well have been trying to eat live frogs. Yet cream crackers became PIGO’s second most successful product when butter or other savoury spreads were value-added.
Thucydides, the first journalist, chronicled the Peloponnesian War without reference to gods or myths, just the facts. He was riding on the back of philosophers who had reduced the shooting gallery of the gods to one and were well on the way to establishing the ‘personal self’’ (in relation to a singular God and ungodly ‘individualism’ to come). But when Pythagoras told him that ‘God always geometrises his creations and Plato spoke of ‘the constancies of human nature’, he combined them into a formula, setting up figures to square the circle of the war in the belief that man could learn from his miss. His signposting placed human nature in static paradigms that did not take into account the almost infinite variation in human conditions. That which makes men react differently to the same situation.
Thucydides gave up applying mathematics to man’s nature in the twentieth year of the war, mindful of Socrates’s warning – if all men are the same, just a bundle of reflexes, the way forward is to leave them get on with it. The Peloponnesian War lasted seven more years and he lived to see the Spartans tear down the walls of Athens, thus ending the classical age.
Applying averages to human nature is statistical nonsense. Man’s constancies, if they exist, are not normally distributed. For example, if you say the average man in France has seven pairs of shoes, and that you can always tell a man from the shoes he wears, that is a barefooted lie. It is the hole in the sock that tells more than seven league boots or Nico trainers. You know what his wife thinks of him (and of herself, sensible girl). Or if he does not have a woman then what he thinks of himself. At least four of the seven pairs of shoes are bound to be bad buys. But PIGO can persuade you that shopping is good for the feet and that a wardrobe full of footwear like Mrs. Marcos impresses the cleaning lady; and a choice for every day of the week is a consumer’s ideal. And so, you end up with a nation of (wo)men with blisters and a sorry need for chiropodists – always in short supply and so outrageously expensive – or a marching army of useless shoes.
Two thousand years after Thucydides, Pavlov became PIGO’s first and last philosopher. His ideas are PIGO’s, and PIGO’s his. Philosophy provides an underlying justification for the behavioral ethic but is too complicated for a business plan. Instant returns are PIGO’s modus operandi. You have not time to think. If PIGO had merely stuck to saliva, as Pavlov should have, it would have been a more profitable partnership. The food industry would have been able to maximize profits by conditioning human’s salivary reflex to respond to dinner bells and then supply conceptual meals. Thus, training people into believing that they have been fed when they haven’t been. The next step would be to persuade the consumer slaves to starve happily while PIGO rakes it in. Then, when their slaves have run out of spit, the starving billions could be sold dry-mouth sprays to use when the bells tolls. Though one wonders if PIGO had taken into consideration the problems of finding the money in famine conditions? I can hear the executives: ‘We will face that when it arises. At present the books add up.’ Short-term planning rules the world. It is PIGO’s bottom line.
Pavlov appears to has been given another lease of life by neuropsychiatry, and his madhouse endgame could yet be justified. Though I am not holding my pheuma (breath). It may prove the equivalent to bloodletting for a post-lobotomy world.