Bill Clinton and Ayn Rand: an unlikely affair

Adam Curtis’s new series is as visually engaging as ever, yet his arguments for once seem to fall short.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone: has Adam Curtis finally taken a mis-step?

There was much anticipation this week as the thinking person’s documentary maker of choice returned to television with the enigmatically titled series All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. Fans of intelligent documentaries, growing thin on an increasingly watery gruel of sensationalist shock-docs, recycled cinema releases and bombastic science-communication vehicles, finally had something to get their teeth stuck in to: a three-hour dissection of free-market economics, the financial crisis and the future of humanity when the masses have lost all faith in the ability to actively shape their own destiny. Well, it’s gotta beat Keeping Up With the Kardashians, right?

Curtis is one of the standout documentary-makers of the past few year. For nearly two decades, from Pandora’s Box onwards, he has produced some of the most engaging critiques of contemporary society around. For most viewers, he is instantly recognisable, with an idiosyncratic delivery – hundreds of quick-edit archive film clips set to an enviably classy soundtrack, seemingly inspired by the re-education scene in A Clockwork Orange – which very few of his legion of admirers even dare to attempt. Indeed, in 2009, he was even able to team up with ultra-hip experimental theatre company Punchdrunk to produce a riveting, if chaotic, short film about Phil Spector and the CIA entitled It Felt Like A Kiss. For those who remember Curtis from his first TV incarnation, showing off talking dogs and exposing dodgy salesmen in Esther Rantzen’s lighthearted current-affairs show That’s Life! (the key is in the exclamation mark), the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ doesn’t even begin to cut it when sitting down to watch his work.

Yet while his style is what grabs the attention, it is easy to lose sight of the crucial detail: that packaged amongst the hipster references and flashy visuals, lies a very unfashionable former politics lecturer, eager to understand the world through ideology (or the lack thereof), political power and ideas, and genuinely unafraid of challenging received wisdom through some of the most articulate and intelligent programmes over the last two decades. His BBC blog, if you haven’t seen it, is essential reading.

So, with a post-financial crisis world order to tackle and the kind of behavioural-modification policies derided in his previous multi-part series The Trap now openly adopted by the leading Western governments, the time is certainly ripe for a dose of Curtis critique. Yet, on the basis of the first episode of All Watched Over…, there are signs that he may have chosen a topic too large for his patchwork style. His tendency to pick up on minor, overlooked figures and details and follow their arc through popular culture and politics was always more than a media-studies flourish: such narratives tied into his overall intellectual interest in seeing how ideas necessary for the maintenance of political order manifested themselves at a time when ideology seemed to have disappeared with the end of the Cold War.

Wrongly dismissed as a conspiracy-theorist by some critics, Curtis in The Power of Nightmares and The Trap was able to illustrate the scattergun approach of post-TINA managerial politics, taking up and discarding whichever crackpot theory of human nature met the necessities of Western governments at any one time, often accidentally and with unintended consequences. It was therefore all the more frightening to discover, for instance, that Tony Blair was basing his strategy of liberal intervention on a half-baked engagement with the writings of Isaiah Berlin rather than simply working as a sock-puppet of greedy corporate interests or some religious fervour (as many disillusioned liberals in the anti-war camp were arguing).

He was at it again in the first episodes of All Watched Over…, taking a step back from the scenes of markets in meltdown and street protests of economically destroyed countries to find the root cause, the ‘Rosebud’ of the contemporary capitalist. And he found… Ayn Rand. This was not a promising start. Rand is, to use a phrase almost certainly never uttered before, something of a siren in contemporary politics: drawing in over-excitably bookish economic libertarians and fumingly frustrated statist lefties alike to be drowned in her stern Baltic waters. Noting the sudden interest in Rand in the immediate wake of the crisis, Dolan Cummings insightfully observed that this eccentric pulp novelist has an unerring ability to inspire devotional love among those souls who like capitalism without the nasty bits, and pure hatred in those who don’t like capitalism, full stop: the problem is, however, that either view tends to at best exaggerate her influence and at worst obscures any of her few appealing contributions.

While it is understandable he chose to open up a three-part series with an insight into the wacky world of this strange figure, however, it indicated Curtis was falling into the most dangerous trap for the serious political economist: he starts taking economists at face value. Economists talking balls in an incoherent manner to suit the political necessities of capitalism – and somehow justifying their own purpose into the bargain – is not a characteristic peculiar to a post-ideological age. So from Rand’s odder ideas we get taken on a swift journey through the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley, the rise of neo-liberal free-market economics, shock therapy, Alan Greenspan’s Randiness and eventually the financial crisis which could’ve been averted if only that nice Bill Clinton had kept away from Monica Lewinsky.

While there is certainly truth in some of this, the devil is also in the details. As has been argued for some time on spiked by Daniel Ben-Ami and Sean Collins, the free-trade bagmen may like to talk a good game of rugged individualism but the policies of administrations from Reagan onwards do not bear this out. It is difficult to argue with any real conviction that Greenspan would’ve won his idol’s heart given the enormous levels of state intervention into the economy under his watch. The financial markets and speculation came to dominate Western economies not because they hoodwinked us with promises of what their fancy computers could do, but because they were the safest way for a political establishment lacking authority or purpose to keep the system going. That the role of China took up less screen-time than Rand and Clinton’s sex lives raised an eyebrow, especially while dismissing the Lewinsky affair as a distracting spectacle. When an economist of the stature of Joseph Stiglitz starts blaming the handling of the Asian financial crisis on a long-dead novelist, you start to feel Rand is acting as a ready-made stage villain.

Admittedly, these are all weighty topics for a three-hour primetime series, but then Curtis is a weighty film-maker. It is perhaps interesting to note that Curtis intended to make a film about the Asian financial crisis and 1990s economic policy in the early Noughties; it seems like he finally has, but reality has exposed much of the crock for him already. For the first time, you got the genuine sense that the pyrotechnics were intended to paper over the cracks rather than illuminate: this was received wisdom in a particularly glossy box. Where he’s going with this remains to be seen, and it’ll certainly be an interesting journey over the next two episodes, but his enigmatic mutterings about technology, ‘machine thinking’ and making documentaries ‘that feel like a fiction’ in interviews do not sound entirely promising.

‘We are living in a strange time’, Curtis said towards the end. That much is certainly true, but strange times can be dangerous ones for men of ideas. Curtis is a rare example of someone generating interesting ideas for our television screens, but then that’s all the more reason to engage with his work with a critical eye rather than simply watch over with loving grace.

David Bowden is spiked‘s TV columnist.

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