‘Our anger is being ironed out of us’
Adam Curtis, director of BBC2's The Trap, on conspiracy theories, why Isaiah Berlin was wrong, and his biggest influence: Starship Troopers.
If you saw the first two films of Adam Curtis’s three-part BBC series The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?, and have felt intrigued, thrilled, infuriated, challenged or simply engaged, then do make a point of catching the third film showing on BBC2 this Sunday. Because you ain’t seen nothing yet.
In the meantime, along with the usual plaudits Curtis has been receiving a bit of flak. I blame the conspiracy theorists. Their paranoid fantasies do make it difficult for serious folk who want to point out that there is indeed more to the world than surface appearances. Unfortunately, anyone who makes the noble effort to do that or to pull together some clues and connections from our history to explain our present sorry state runs the risk of being called mad.
Sure enough, when confronted with The Trap several commentators – for example, in the Sunday Telegraph, Financial Times, New Statesman, Guardian and Sunday Times – promptly fell right into it, and reached for the ‘conspiracy theorist’ label. My conspiracy theory is that they all dine in the same restaurant.
The thesis of the series is quite straightforward. It is in fact stated clearly and often, and it is patently not a conspiracy theory. It is that we live today within a conception of freedom and of ourselves that is narrow and limiting. It is an ideology that developed first in the Cold War and went on to be embraced by sections of both the right and left, and is today promoted by the likes of US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. It found expression in many quarters, in the economic philosophy of FA Hayek, the anti-psychiatry of RD Laing, the negative liberty of Isaiah Berlin, the public choice theory of James Buchanan – and that is just for starters.
It is an ideology which views human beings as selfish, mistrustful, isolated individuals who are seen, and have come to see themselves, as simplistic beings who can be understood and directed through the application of scientific techniques, especially through the application of mathematics, numbers and targets that can tell them what they are expected to achieve, what is normal and how they should feel. This diminished view of the self might have been of use in countering communist tyranny but it was a ‘trap’ and it has left us with ‘no positive vision in the face of all the reactionary forces’ that it has in fact helped to awaken around the world, says Curtis.
Some of the arguments are undercooked, and some of the connections glib. Curtis has an uncanny feel for the problems and weaknesses of contemporary culture, and a terrific nose for their antecedents and adumbrations. The three films in The Trap, however, have a tendency to succumb to the teleology temptation, and accord far too prominent a role to the early expression of a current idée fixe in the matter of its actual development.
To take one example. We can agree that the Cold War world saw the promotion of a suspicious, isolated individualism; that we are even more deeply in the thrall of such an outlook today; and that there are connections between the two. We should take care, however, not to read the later phenomenon as either the same as the former or determined by it. Indeed we should take care not to take the Cold War stand-off itself at face value.
It should be said at once that there is so much fascinating material in these films, and indeed so much real sense too, and the whole is delivered with such vigour and panache, as to more than compensate for the strains in the thesis. The fact is that there are simply more ideas, more images, more provocations, more jokes, more great music in one Curtis documentary than in a month of your average ‘current affairs’ programmes.
I went to see Curtis in his editing suite off Oxford Street in central London, and asked him if he was indeed becoming paranoid. He laughed out loud. ‘Well, it’s just silly, isn’t it? There is nothing in those films about any sort of conspiracy. There isn’t one allegation that some group of people plotted or conspired to create something. Isn’t that what a conspiracy is? Let’s not talk about that. My argument is simple: the way that we think about ourselves today, and the way in which those who manage us think about us, those things are not part of a natural order. I am talking about the rise of an ideology that has encouraged us very strongly to focus on people as individuals, on ourselves as individuals, on our feelings about ourselves and on our private relations with other people. And we are discouraged from thinking collectively.’
Interestingly, Curtis blames the pundits less and the whole journalistic culture much more. ‘I am beginning to think that just about all of our journalism is trapped within received wisdom. When did you last see a piece of journalism that surprised you or challenged the way that you see yourself or the way that you see those who rule you? Take investigative journalism. That is supposed to be challenging journalism. Within microseconds you know it is going to reveal a bad person lurking in a large corporation, and it is going to turn up maybe one document that “exposes” something you really already know, and is anyway not that important. Does it surprise you? No. And Hollywood has been doing that since the 1920s. I am trying to surprise people about the way that they are ruled, to shake them out of their complicity with it.’
‘What I am trying to show is how this ideology has permeated not just politics. I am pulling together ideas from many different areas. They are inter-related and they are all about politics in the wider sense. What I do is modern political journalism. So much political journalism is moribund because it simply tries to follow power down the traditional circuits. Power today is travelling much less in the political sphere and much more in the culture generally; in the management culture, in mathematics, in genetics, in science, in psychology. Power deals with people much more directly now.
‘I am simply trying to show the common roots of the ideas that lie behind developments in these areas. The developments are rooted in the period that we have lived through – the Cold War. I make linkages in order to try to make people look again at themselves and at their own world. I want them to pull back, and look down as from a helicopter.’
He breaks off to play some of the sounds that he is tinkering with at his controls. ‘It is amazing how much mail I get about the music in my films. So many people want to know where it comes from, whether it is high classical Sibelius or low-trash electronic pop. I challenge viewers to identify the source of the three-note riff over the opening titles in the second and third films, and which is later repeated. Will you put that in? I will praise them if they get it.’
I ask Curtis how he would sum up his own filmmaking technique. ‘Collage’, he says without hesitation. ‘Let me tell you of my six influences, in ascending order of importance, and collage is important to them all. And what I take from all of them is their silliness and their seriousness. First, John Dos Passos, especially his USA. Secondly the film Hellzapoppin’ from a Broadway musical. Thirdly, the film Sullivan’s Travels by Preston Sturges. Fourthly, Robert Rauschenberg. Fifthly, Shostakovich. Sixthly, and most importantly, Starship Troopers by Paul Verhoeven. It is the most prescient, brilliant work of the last 20 years. He was so far ahead with that.’
Curtis’s films do not in fact work just at the level of collage, elegant and powerful though that is. That would underestimate the force of the earnest, steady, authoritative, voiceover argument from Curtis himself. This is the unnerving counterpoint to the dazzling sequence of images and sounds that unfold from the screen. He does not mystify. Indeed he simplifies and repeats. He drives remorselessly on, challenging us to keep up – with the ideas, the images, the sounds. It is total TV.
Where to next with his own work? ‘I’m not telling, but I will say that there are big changes afoot. I’ve come to the end of something. The Trap was itself the third in a series. There was The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares [his much discussed film on the myth of an all-powerful al-Qaeda], and then The Trap. Actually, they could have been called The Century of the Self, The Enemies of the Self, the Death of the Self….
‘I’m moving on now. We are, I think, about to enter a new Romantic age. Big questions are being asked again. What is life for? What is beyond ourselves? What is beyond the universe? Does God exist? The most important expression of this new age so far is the American TV series, Battlestar Galactica.’
How does he see things developing in the world at large? ‘I am optimistic. There are, of course, things that get me down. One thing that continually depresses me is the way that we got to the moon and no further. We just stopped trying. We are more interested today in our obsessive compulsive disorders or whatever. Unhappiness, despair, anger – these are being ironed out of people. They are being turned into medicated zombies.
‘But not all people are like that. The ghost that haunts the system is that of the secretaries at the Rand Corporation in 1956 who were given a game to play and expected to act selfishly – they proceeded to ignore the script and acted co-operatively instead.
‘And look what happened recently with the [British] National Health Service. The government thought it was dealing with selfish, economically oriented, competitive individuals. So it thought that it had to pay the doctors and nurses more money in order to incentivise them to do more work. Then they were shocked that productivity did not go up accordingly. No doubt the staff did want more money and were glad to take it, but the really interesting point that emerged is that nearly all of them were already doing as much work as they possibly could and there was very little more that could be squeezed out of them. So, yes, I am optimistic and that is why I wanted to end the series on a positive note.’
And indeed he does. The third film contains an exhilarating affirmation of revolution. It dwells on the many horrors of many revolutions of the past. It describes how dangerous and frightening they have always seemed to us. But as he says in the film, ‘the dream of changing the world and transforming people and freeing them from themselves’ is one that refuses to go away. The dream ‘haunts us still because it inspires people, it offers hope and meaning.’
With a typically sly flourish, he gives it to Alexander Haig, the US secretary of state to Ronald Reagan, to assert that: ‘There are things that we Americans must be willing to fight for. You know, this republic was spawned by armed conflict. The freedoms and liberties that we enjoy today were a consequence of armed conflict, insurrection if you will.’ Haig might have added that similar developments occurred in England, and it didn’t all end in tears there either.
It is no doubt with such thoughts in mind that at the end of the film Curtis boldly refutes the liberal sage: ‘Isaiah Berlin was wrong. Not all attempts to change the world for the better end in tyranny.’
John Fitzpatrick is director of the Kent Law Clinic at the University of Kent. The final part of Adam Curtis’s The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom? will be shown on Sunday 25 March.
Dolan Cummings said that in Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares, television is used as an intellectual resource and that, in contrast to Peter Taylor’s The New Al-Qaeda, it goes beyond the idea that the ‘underlying causes of terrorism’ are to do with global political injustice. Brendan O’Neill said that conspiracy-mongering has moved from the margins to the mainstream and Frank Furedi asked Why do we fear freedom?.
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