Still reeling a little from the death of J.G. Ballard I felt in the mood to watch something dealing with conspiracy theories; guardian figures of Doctors and psychiatrists trying to assess and understand the world through ever more intricate and complex methods of calculation; paradoxes of global war to create global peace; societal meltdown and mental breakdown all portrayed in a disappointed but wryly amused manner - so I re-watched The Trap: What Happened To Our Dream Of Freedom by Adam Curtis!
This three part 2004 series for the BBC is mind-boggling to watch, as it reconfigures the modern world (from the Second World War on) through archive footage and interviews in order to make a coherent narrative of what would normally seem incomprehensible and disconnected events.
I'm going to paraphrase heavily in my summaries, mostly because the number of topics and amount of information that is covered is so wide ranging that it is difficult to adequately explain it without just referring people to just watch the series! However it is an essential watch for anyone interested in politics, society, film (there are many allusions, with music ranging from Pino Donaggio's angelic/doom laden score from Carrie and John Carpenter's The Fog to music from Peter Greenaway's earlier experimental structuralist films, which this series sometimes resembles in its chopping up of archival footage - Curtis's narration often reminds me of Colin Cantile's clipped tones from the early Greenaway films! There is even a Godardian white on black title card building up into a sentence that is overlaid with the gunshot sounds from Masculin Feminin!) and television (the series seems to me to use the fast paced, ADD editing patterns of modern television in a highly subversive way - rather than using fast paced editing to obscure and pad out a simple message into an hour long programme it uses the same techniques to create surprising, enlightening and often amusing connections between its material. For films dealing with superficially dry material, it is almost impossible for anyone to be bored by the barrage of images and information. Confused and overwhelmed perhaps, but not bored!)
The first film introduces the soon to become highly influential Game Theory
, a theory of human behaviour that returned to prominence during the Cold War to help with rationally predicting the behaviour of enemies in a conflict - an idea that basically states that people are selfish creatures acting purely out of self interest. The theory was mostly returned to prominence by the mathematician John Nash and the RAND corporation
- the same John Nash profiled in A Beautiful Mind who turned out to have a rather skewed and paranoid view of the world and the people in it! (I was left after watching this series even more with the feeling that A Beautiful Mind, in its total focus on the Nash story and its emotional consequences, didn't adequately deal with the implications of his ideas on the rest of the world). This theory completely disregarded any sense that people could sometimes act outside of their best interests, in other words that they would co-operate for the benefit of someone else or work for the common good rather than only when they received some obvious personal benefit. That idea just did not compute - literally!
The programme goes on to show this idea being applied to the world of politics, where every politician was seen as obviously being corrupt and working only in their own interest, because there was simply no reason for them to be working for the interests of the public. Eventually this theory becomes self-fulfilling and legitimising as self-serving politicians who believe that corruption is a natural state of affairs come to power.
The second film detailed the way that Game Theory was expanded beyond military conflicts to apply to every aspect of the modern world. This was ironically initially seen as being a way to increase freedom in the sense that Game Theory saw the world as self-interested individuals therefore elites and ruling classes were of course corrupt and to be distrusted. Only you yourself worked in your own interests, therefore it made sense to dismantle societal structures of government which would always be abused and instead create a world of individuals governed by logical and rational numbers - in other words performance targets, time and motion studies and the logic of the money markets!
All these things were not (or so it was thought) open to corruption, and responded not to the whims of an aristocratic ruling elite cut off from the rest of the population but instead to the ordinary man and what he wanted - from what jobs were deemed necessary or not to what sold well or not in the shops or as shares.
The idea of targets to be reached and met was applied to everything from the National Health Service to the Police, and almost immediately they proved willing to fiddle the figures so that they met their rigidly enforced targets. Over and above patient welfare and arresting the right person the emphasis on the figures above all led to inevitable abuse, eventually making the figures themselves all but meaningless. Luckily the stock markets wouldn't have that problem! (wink!)
So this idea was initially put forward with the best of intentions to liberate people from previous methods of control - a very 60s counterculture idea. However implicit in its viewpoint was the idea that people were selfish and would always stab the other in the back if there was something to be gained by doing so.
The idea fragmented society completely as studies by such people as R.D. Laing
were published showing that families were not loving and mutually supportive entities but actually involved family members "using" the other members and forcing them to act in certain ways to keep their love, through threats or bribes. It might be an interesting idea but it did not include the idea of there being anything more than this mutual need keeping people together.
This idea was even suggested to reach as far as individual genes with the introduction of the "selfish" gene
, which have their own subliminal forces on human behaviour. The documentary goes into a 1970s study of the Yamamano tribe in South America (ironically the same tribe namechecked in Cannibal Holocaust!), where the researcher suggests that during an apparently confusing fight between tribe members that was filmed and studied it was found that people took the sides of people that they were genetically more closely related to (though the programme later reveals that the head of this research provided one tribe with machetes and axes which were then fought over by another visiting tribe! The researcher is questioned on this and cuts the interview off!)
Another area the second programme gets into is psychiatry. An experiment where a researcher and eight students, all mentally 'normal', presented themselves at eight different clinics in the US and to lie that they all heard someone saying the word "thud" in their heads, and that was the only lie they should tell. They were all committed as insane, except for one who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder! And then (a la Shock Corridor!) found that they could not convince the Doctors that they actually were
sane! So they had to take the prescribed drugs and pretend they were getting better and being cured! In a funny footnote, after the researcher and his students were released and revealed what had happened they were challenged by one of the hospitals to send some more fakes to them - when a couple of months later they proudly revealed that they had found over forty fakes the researcher revealed that they had not sent anyone!
In response to these damaging revelations psychiatry retreated back and instead of definitively proclaiming someone to be sane or insane instead developed and refined through computerised tests what the symptoms of depression, for example, should be. This led to the rise of concepts such as ADD, obsessive compulsive disorder and so on - categories that people could check themselves for and see if they displayed the characteristics of having a mental problem. In effect they abdicated responsibility and put the onus of deciding whether someone was crazy or not onto the individual, or more worrying on people who could judge others by the way they acted out of the norm (this ties in with the selfish individual idea posited by Game Theory).
There is a sad interview with a Doctor where he talks of increasing numbers of people coming to him wanting "the rough edges filed off" so that they "would be normal". Of course this opens up a whole new area for drug companies who provide new batches of antidepressants like Prozac to calm people down - as the same Doctor says in interview: "it makes them a simpler person". By giving simple checklists for people to use to definitively tell them whether they are sane or not, the psychiatrists effectively allowed drug companies to medicalise a wide range of normal human emotions. Rather than accommodating the idea that individuals may be depressed or sad for a wide range of reasons (they may be grieving or have lost a job, or ended a relationship etc) there is a one size fits all test, and associated drugs to take, to make you feel and act 'better'.
There is an amazing clip from the Kilory talk show (I never thought I'd have ever described his crappy, audience baiting, low rent daytime talk show as being amazing!) where he interviews a woman on Prozac who says she feels as if she is a "new person", then after a brief digression returns to the interview where it has moved on to the woman's husband who expresses his concern that she is different on the drugs. To Kilroy's rather glib response "So she's a different woman? A better woman, maybe?", the husband again says that she's just not like the same woman he married. It's like a British version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers!
What the second programme seems to be suggesting, beyond showing how Game Theory is being applied to all aspects of culture, is the way that these seemingly disconnected elements are interacting with each other - so more passive consumers, either because they are actively taking drugs, or are just repressing themselves by other means to try and fit in with what is considered to be normal behaviours, are also much easier to market products to. And eventually, just like politicians, individuals internalise the values of their society and behave the way that they are expected to.
This brings us to the third and final programme, which tackles the idea of Negative and Positive Liberty. Game Theory was said to have been created partly in response to fears of expressions of Positive Liberty, i.e. uprisings by people taking matters into their own hands that were common throughout history (the French, Russian, ironically even the US, Revolutions). Negative Liberty on the other hand could basically be characterised as consumerism â€“ being fed and fulfilling short term needs to feel as if you have freedom in a wider sense. (There is a section where Clinton coming to power with ideas of reforming the country in order to give the people more 'freedom' is told to scale back his ideas by his advisors, given the fact that they inherited a deficit and the aftermath of a war in the Middle East. So instead Clinton was encouraged to, rather than invest in health care and government projects, to instead place his faith in the markets, cut back on government and health care and hope that the private sector would provide that instead. Of course that did not work out)
The third film talks about frighteningly destabilising uprisings (clips from Battle of Algiers included) leading to greater interventionism under Kissinger's ideas of real politik, leading to the US ironically backing brutal dictators (everyone from Pinochet to Pol Pot) against revolutionary parties (everyone from Che Guevara to Yasser Arafat) wanting their own versions of 'freedom'. Of course this destabilises everything even more, as in Nicaragua or Iraq as 'our' dictators become liabilities (there's some amazing footage of Reagan spinning the Sandinitas into a US-threatening force by suggesting that they could launch an attack on the country within a hour!) Of course the major example of this is the Iranian Revolution where trying to keep the Shah in power led to an uprising and a politically militant form of Shia Islamism (when Shia Islam had been resolutely apolitical until that point). Ironically while the West saw the Revolution as a resurgence of a medieval barbarism, the programme argues that it was actually based on Western ideas of freedom, brought to Iran by Ali Shariati
a teacher who had studied Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon in France and translated their works into Persian. (I couldn't help but wonder if a lot of the West's thinking on Iran is based on rather racist assumptions, since a group of bearded students rallying for freedom may look as strange and frightening as a group calling for all Westerners to be beheaded when you don't understand the language)
The programme then moves on to the sea change with the fall of the Berlin Wall, leading to the "end of history" comment, with the suggestion that there would be no more conflict now that the entire world was ostensibly at peace with no Cold War. Negative liberty in the form of market capitalism could now spread everywhere and the first test case was Russia itself, where the restrictions on the currency were removed in the hopes that everyone would buy shares in companies and become neo-capitalists overnight. Unfortunately the programme suggests that what actually happened is that the currency devalued to such an extent that it became worthless. The shares given to the 'ordinary people' were sold at a pittance by people desperate for any money, leading to oligarchs
buying up huge swathes of Russia's infrastructure. Boris Yeltsin gave more away to these characters against the objections of his government and eventually this led to a flashy thuggish character like Vladimir Putin coming to power as a people tired of the chaos in their society look for someone who could restore some sort of order, no matter how brutally and corruptly they did so (the parallels with 30s Germany are staggering and rather frightening).
Then the programme moves on to Tony Blair. Blair is suggested to have the idea of fusing negative liberty ideas of capitalism and the market managing the country with the positive liberty idea of overturning poorly managed governments. The initial test of this was in Kosovo, where Blair talked Clinton into pre-emptive strikes on the country. While Clinton in this case argued for the strikes because he saw the humanitarian side of intervening, Blair was more for regime change even then. With 9/11 and the Iraq War he was provided with the perfect opportunity and the programme suggests that a more extreme version of what happened in Russia was applied in Iraq. All of the infrastructure of the country was stripped away, leaving the country in chaos, and then the country was put out to tender for various corporations to come in and rebuild, with the hope that this would spontaneously create a capitalistic society.
What it did instead was leave a power vacuum that was eventually filled by more militant factions in response to the extreme upheavals that had occurred. And then there is the irony that events overseas returned to inspire atrocities on British soil, which led to changes in laws to restrict the populace's civil liberties even more!
It is a powerful and persuasive series of films, almost impossible to take in at one sitting (I've only really scratched the surface with my synopses above) and breathtaking in its scope and complexity. It is yet another leap forward from Curtis's previous films, combining the discussion of the Cold War from Pandora's Box, the psychiatric elements of Century of the Self and the critiques of government thought-control from The Power of Nightmares into one overarching narrative. Hopefully this might get a DVD release somewhere in the future, though the extensive use of archival material would seem to make this impossible to be officially released outside of various YouTube clips.