Whatever Happened to our Dream of Freedom?

Sunday, March 18, 2007 by

You’ll love this, they told me about Adam Curtis’s single-handed and quixotic attempt at reintroducing intellectualism to prime-time TV. This is your idea of telly; big ideas, big themes. Back to the ’70s.

But back in the ’70s I was rubbish at maths and it hobbles you watching this show. It’s maybe caused me to lose count of the number of arbitrary, wilful and downright bloody annoying jump-cuts in what was otherwise a perfectly reasonable endeavour. It might have been 142,737 – can’t remember.

Curtis’s shtick, from the get-go of this curate’s egg of a curate’s egg, has been maths. Maths, maths and more maths.

This is a subject which, one fears, has never quite been quite as big a TV crowd-puller as, say, Jordan’s breasts. I find this a constant. Maths was never a hit in my school either; but if you compared Mrs Stokes the mathematician to Mlle Aillaud the French mistress, you could see why the class of ’79 produced a lot of linguists.

But then again Curtis is above such triviality – his argument is of a didactic, sit-up-and-take-notes complexity that demands exposition over three episodes of prime-time BBC2. And it’s a muscular one of admirable loftiness that defies easy summarising save in its extant form.

It goes like this: post-Cold War Western democracy has been governed by market-friendly notions of humans as genetically pre-programmed machines of self-interest, paradigms of the pleasure principle, thereby surreptitiously enslaving us all to the whims of the economy under the guise of pursuing the goals of self-betterment and development which the “winning” of the Cold War were supposed to make a reality. Smart, eh?

This proposal has a firm logical base, but requires an exposition of spectacular intellectua élan, and extensive scientific testing. It gets neither, although Curtis may not be culpable. As his films indicate, the world in which we live is an increasingly complex matrix of discourses, a sphere in which time and money coalesce. To see through his argument, Curtis might well need the resources and time slots available in days of yore to, say, Bronowski or Clark. The fact that Curtis has got three hour-long slots is worthy of celebration in itself. Quite a feat; after all, this was three hours of BBC airtime that could have been given over to cross-country running or something featuring Ben Fogle.

Curtis’s liberal credentials emerged more plainly in this second episode, but given the timescale he deals with, the bulk of talking heads, whether living or talking from the grave of the archive, are usually libertarians, Friedmanite freaks, laissez-faire nutjobs. Napoleon Chagnon, an “anthropologist” who became famous for his footage of the Amazonian Yanomanis in the 1970s, had a boozer’s conk as pitted as the moon. When asked if he’s sure about a proposal, responds, “Are you sure your father’s your father?” before struggling to his feet and waddling offset in a tizz. In a way, it was a shame that more rational voices of the centre-right of philosophy weren’t heard, like the Hungarian maverick Tibor Liska – but slowly Curtis’s logic emerged. The libertarians blethered away, while anyone with a brain asked the questions and got ready with the remote control’s “off” button.

Markets could define human happiness better than politicians, ignoring entirely the possibility that economy is itself a political phenomenon. Er … right. Solutions could be found “not through politics” but by the market, by “the objective power of numbers”. This was inadequately rationalised, but you knew the strands of “thought” Curtis was reporting on. Most damningly for the right-wingers, he brought in their catastrophically oft-quoted 18th and 19th century thinkers who identified the market as the main agency of human interaction, unwittingly pre-echoing Karl Marx’s entire worldview.

Curtis then twisted his knife; the mathematical rationalisation of human behaviour, he claimed, could be traced down through every level of British society. Like an 18th-century pamphleteer, his trail of logic went on and on. The victory of behaviourism over psychiatry in the 1990s, in which the cure rather than the cause of mental illness brought a new economic and social pragmatism to psychiatry was the tip of the iceberg. The development by the pharmaceutical industry of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibtors (SSRIs) like Prozac, were tools to reconfigure the human machine for its reintegration into the market machine.

The obsession with numbers, Curtis persisted, drove New Labour obsessions with targets and performance, and with no default mode to offset failures in the mathematical mode of calculation, tbe problems (poverty, crime, health service defects, Kilroy at large in society) simply got worse. This entire conceit was, of course, logically untenable (Curtis made no mention, with admirable ironic restraint, of the lack of targets applicable to Blair’s own performance record as PM).

To the present writer, Curtis’ closely-argued thesis is sympathetic but not compelling. The fact that his historical interpretation is allowed to be the only counterblast to libertarian, free-market orthodoxy without resort to the arguments of postwar Marxist thinkers betrays either vanity, ignorance or skimpy production values – or all three. The likes of Marcuse, Horkheimer and others have been before the cameras as have Hayek and Popper. There were editorial flubs, again possibly engendered by lack of airtime – episode two catalogued the handover of fiduciary muscle by the Clinton and Blair administrations to the Fed and Bank of England in 1993 and 1997 respectively, and yet within half an hour claimed that politicians were “without power to change society”. There are jerky and historical switches between Whitehall soundbites and Beltway bribes. Why? Messy, messy, messy.

Worst of all, from TV’s point of view, is that a programme which attempts to expose a deep and abiding cancer in the way our rulers see, and thereby shape, the world should be couched in a visual language that so echoed the postmodern, unregulated universe that they apparently endorse. The metareality of endless consumer choice is symbolised as the all-too-real endless range of image. Curtis and his directors employed techniques had the rat-tat-tat modishness of corporate online and telly advertising. It doesn’t preclude moments of quiet brilliance – for instance, the smiley emoticons on a police computer screen to denote a crime-solving target met. But if Curtis’s visual imagination is an ironic gesture, it is wanting, and is taken to extremes of length.

In so embracing TV’s visual immediacy and vibrancy, Curtis perhaps ignores TV’s own role in the processes which have shaped a society he so clearly, and rightly, abhors. There must be a better way than this. Let’s just be thankful that even this eye-wearying stuff is at least being shown, and hope that by the concluding episode three, Curtis and his crew contrive a calculus between text and image that makes this into the modern TV milestone it wishes to be.


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