The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Monday, March 12, 2007


Just over three years ago we were given a telly. Very little of the enormous amount of time we've spent watching it since then has been worthwhile, but two programmes stand out for me: Whicker's War and The Power of Nightmares by film-maker Adam Curtis. This, I felt, was the only broadcast since 11/9 which really gave a sense of context to the war on terror, a job the BBC and other news organisations could and should have carried out long before.

Curtis's new documentary series, The Trap, on changing notions of freedom in Britain and the US aired tonight, and it covers a similar period (Cold War to the present day), using similar techniques: extended voice-over, interviews, and lots of music cues and archive footage for illustrative and sometimes humorous purposes. What he's doing in this one, really, is tracking the progress of an idea, or a perspective, about power, government and human nature: namely that a particular way of looking at human beings and human interaction, which had origins in analyses of nuclear war strategies, was developed and disseminated through political elites so that it became the dominant - even only - notion of freedom today.

As far as I can gather, it is this: human beings are basically selfish, and even when they think they're being altruistic they are actually acting for themselves. The attempt by government to intervene and regulate will inevitably fail (think Britain in the 1970s - the 'British disease', a failing economy, rampant strikes) because it will be unable to contain the demands of competing interest groups. Therefore, government intervention should be scaled back, and people should be left to compete with one another within a certain basic framework. This will ensure social stability, since competition on such a scale will always end in stalemate, and people will be free to pursue their interests without the state getting in the way. The benefits, and the drawbacks, of the application of such a world-view should be obvious to anyone who has been awake at some point in the past twenty-five years.

Now, put like this, it doesn't really seem like anything new, and indeed we saw some old enemies: Hayek, the Adam Smith Institute and the NHS Internal Market. But Curtis was tracing this idea back to a number of unusual sources: the Rand Corporation, the game theory of John Nash, and the anti-psychiatry movement pioneered and inspired by R.D. Laing. All very interesting, and most of it new to me, but I'm still not convinced that all of these elements fall into the smooth, continuous and rather sinister development that Curtis's film seems to suggest. I'm perfectly prepared to accept parallel developments in the popular perception and use of psychiatry, and the use of game theory in military thinking, but to say that herein lies the origin of the current notion of freedom as sold to us by government and media seems to me to be laying it on a bit thick.

The anomie, apathy and atomisation we see in contemporary society has certainly been worsened by Thatcher and her ilk, but the tendency has been there for a good hundred years, I'd say, with the consequences of mass industrialisation and urbanisation. One only has to read The Waste Land ("I had not thought the dead were so many") or Edwin Muir's autobiography (he moved from Orkney to Glasgow when he was fifteen, aging in the process about 150 years, he said) to see that.

Curtis is a just a little too slick for me, this time. I'm not seeing enough evidence for the extremely sweeping statements he makes, often summing up the nature of society at a particular moment, in order to move his thesis along. Is it really the case that people right across America began making use of psychiatric self-diagnosis forms, challenging both the medical establishment and, by extension, Big Government? No, I can't quite get that one. I may have got it wrong - he does move very fast.

He makes some extremely interesting links - for example, I didn't realise that Alain Enthoven, former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the 1960s and full-time number-cruncher, was the Downing Street consultant behind the NHS Internal Market. Indeed, he's still at it. Nor did I know that the economic theory of Public Choice underlay every episode of "Yes Minister". In fact, I'd never heard of Public Choice theory, which seems like one of those convoluted ideas that extremely clever people use to explain something which most of us take for granted.
Nor had I heard of the "thud" hoax/experiment. But I don't buy that all these things tie neatly into one another as Curtis is implying, rather than simply resonate.

Nevertheless, it's a challenging and intelligent piece of television, which acknowledges that things happened before last week, so that makes it practically unique. I look forward to episode 2.

There's an extended discussion of the programme on Blairwatch.

PS Something Curtis regularly does, which I deeply dig, is to challenge the notion that the Cold War did not simply fizzle out without consequence. The psychic hangover from 40 years of living with the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the half-life of the crazy theories that were used to justify it, are still with us.

PPS R.D. Laing, who I confess I've never read, looks like a real snake-oil salesman, and in love with his own image. He may have been right about some things - or he may not - but I look at him and think, naah, I wouldnae trust you to sell me a toothpick.


At 16 March 2007 at 00:01 , Blogger Joe said...

You're right, although it was fascinating, he did fail to provide sufficient evidence to back up his rather sweeping assertions which linked an awful lot if different events and movements together. Although there was a compelling logic to it he didn't prove it with any rigor - if it was an essay at college he'd only scrape a C at best for failing to back up his assertions.

That said there was a lot of thought-provoking stuff in there, a lot of which I hadn't heard of before even although I have a degree in communication studies. Certainly looking forward to seeing more of it.


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