Hobgoblin Journal

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?

Adam Curtis's three-part BBC documentary - reviewed by David Black

June10 2007

“It turns out that the trouble is not with the trap or even with finding the exit. The trouble is within the trapped ones.”

Wilhelm Reich, ‘The Murder of Christ’

The opening scenes of The Trap will be familiar to anyone who has read Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, a New Left 'classic' of the 1960s. Marcuse quotes an article from the RAND Corporation house-journal which, in the language of a hotel brochure, describes a nuclear war ‘game’ called SAFE, that began in the late 1950s: ‘down in our labyrinthine basement – somewhere under the Snack Bar... the world becomes a map, missiles merely symbols… and wars [just] plans and calculations written down on paper’. The players - Rand intellectuals, air force personnel, scientists, economists and the like – are provided with an estimate of the ‘world situation’, a list of weapons available for sale and details of the spending budget to buy them. The objective of the Blue team (the USA) is to maintain a ‘deterrent capability’ and the objective of Red team (the USSR) is to achieve force superiority over Blue. At any point in the game, the Game Director can introduce war as a new factor, in order to get a measure of the military forces in play and the amount of death and destruction both sides can inflict on each other. But then all of a sudden it’s time to relax, for ‘Coffee, Cake and Ideas!’ Marcuse saw this madness as the most dramatic representation of ‘the Conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness’; in which ‘the calculus takes care of conscience’. In other words, not only was it mad; it was also rational.
The Trap's director, Adam Curtis, has the mathematician, John Nash (who inspired the movie, ‘A Beautiful Mind’) explain how he provided the theoretical ground for Game Theory as practiced, not only in the Rand basement, but also in the US defence bunkers during the nuclear standoff between the US and the Soviet Union. Nash’s equations, formulated by applying the distrustful and self-interest rationale of the Poker player, are thus applied to Cold War paranoia.
Around the same period during the late 1950s a leftish radical psychiatrist in a Glasgow mental hospital realizes that the existing institutions are structurally incapable of curing patients. The psychiatrist is R.D. Laing, and he begins to study the family relationships of his schizophrenic patients. He reports his encounters with these ‘so-called normal families’ as like entering a ‘carbon monoxide gas chamber’ in which kind words and loving behaviour mask a secret reality of resentment and manipulation – in short ideal conditions for incubating mental illnesses. In the 1960s and ’70s Laing becomes a leading figure of the Counterculture and continues his research in the USA. He utilizes techniques developed at the Institute of Mental Health in Palo Alto for applying Game Theory to family relationships. In the 1980s Laing’s ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement subverts the psychiatric establishment with a cunning experiment. A number of certifiably sane people are each told to report to a mental hospital and tell the doctor that they are fine apart from intermittently hearing a voice in their heads that says ‘Thud!’ All of them are committed as insane and a scandal ensues in the which psychiatric establishment comes off worst. But contrary to Laing’s intentions, ‘anti-psychiatry’ leaves the gate open for a new school of drug-based psychiatry that treats the majority of people as in some way mentally ill. This new school – or rather industry – finds a whole range of previous unknown mental disorders and comes up a whole new range of drugs – such as Prozac – to ‘treat’ them. Underlying this development is a scientific model of humans as simplified robots; rational, calculating and selfish beings whose behaviors and emotions can be analysed and ‘cured’ without consideration of the causes, some of which might otherwise be traced to ‘social’ causes – or simply to being human.
Curtis goes on to describe the interaction of Game Theory with the free-market economics of Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan. The free-marketeers’ ‘Public Choice' economics claims that ‘public duty’, as practiced by public servants and politicians, is an illusion. The ‘alternative’ is a system of order and control, in which the freedom of the market is extended to all areas of society, in such a way that Adam Smith neither imagined or sanctioned in his political economy two hundred years ago. Underlying this ‘freedom’ is a scientific model, driven by the ‘power of numbers’, in which human beings are seen as simply rational calculating beings whose behaviors and even feelings can be analysed in purely mathematical terms. Economic historian Philip Mirowski tells Curtis that in the Game Theory view of the world, “Individuals are little information processors, but the market is the best information processor. And democracy is a weak information processor… inefficient.” In 1992, following the collapse of Communism, leading financiers in the US proclaim the 'death of national sovereignty' and the rebirth of the free market as a true voting mechanism, superior to democratic institutions. Alan Greenspan, chair of the Federal Reserve, has little trouble persuading incoming President Bill Clinton to ditch his social reform program and make swinging cuts in Welfare.
Public Choice Economics is implemented in Britain: first by John Major’s Conservatives and then by Tony Blair’s New Labour Party; leading straight to the present-day bureaucratic nightmare of number-crunching, meaningless targets and endemic corruption in administration and business; and to the return of greater inequalities and rigidity of social class structures based on the power of money.
Another dimension of The Trap achieves critical mass in the 1970s when the economic model of rational strategies of self-interest is applied to Biology. A leading school of the New Geneticists contends that animals (including humans) are simply machines that are being used by the genes to produce more genes like themselves – substitute the word ‘market’ (or better still ‘capital’ or ‘value’) for the word ‘genes’ and you get the picture.
Crucially however, Curtis points out, the Game Theory only works on people who act selfishly. Groups such as trade unionists and anti-war/anti-poverty campaigners today thus represent a threat to the New Order inasmuch as they take principles such as justice and equality seriously and do not allow themselves to be led by the ineffectual and corrupt – as is all too often the case.
The third and final part of The Trap also begins in the 1950s; this time with Sir Isaiah Berlin and his theory of Positive and Negative Freedom. Berlin argues that Positive Freedom, epitomised by the French Jacobins and the Russian Bolsheviks, aims to change people for the better in order to produce a better, even ideal, society. But this new ‘absolutism’ has tended to produce the tyranny of ‘Divine Terror', so Berlin counterposes a notion of Negative Freedom, in which ideals are excluded from social policy and in which people are free to do what they want – especially with their money - provided their freedoms don’t contradict anyone else’s. But despite the disaster of Communism, which was discredited for all time by the events of 1956 in Hungary, Positive ‘Jacobin’ Freedom strikes back in the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s; finding its most powerful expression in the words and deeds of Frantz Fanon, the Martiniquan student of Jean Paul Sartre, who becomes a leader of the Algerian independence movement, the FLN. As Curtis points out Fanon inspires, among others, Che Guevara, Steve Biko and the revolutionary ideologist of Shiite Political Islam, Ali Shariati. Curtis shows violent images from the famous ‘Fanonist’ movie, The Battle of Algiers, and describes Fanon’s notion of revolutionary violence as a mental ‘cleansing’ process that breaks the colonial masses’ sense of powerlessness and creates new nations and a ‘new man.’ But in this ‘strange paradoxical world’, Curtis explains, the ‘liberals’ of the 1970s and ‘80s fight back by adopting violent and terrorist means themselves to enforce Negative Freedom (Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola, etc.). At best, these neo-liberals will only sanction the overthrowing of dictators like Pinochet and Marcos if the ‘democracy’ that replaces them is restricted to voting and does not involve redistribution of wealth and ideological power. In fact, the neo-liberals come to believe that the Market is the only true democracy and that politicians should only be allowed to argue about how best to allow it’s ‘hidden hand’ to function. Back in the 1950s Isiah Berlin, later a key influence on Tony Blair, had been careful to add the proviso that Negative Freedom must never become an absolute itself. Curtis’s point is that it has: this new absolutist version of Negative Freedom is precisely what New Labour has dedicated itself to in its foreign military adventures with the US. In the so-called War on Terror, which targets various sections of Political Islam, the dismantling many of our civil liberties is turning Negative Freedom into its own totalitarian opposite. In the final section The Trap, which deals with the disastrous application of the ‘mathematical’ calculations of Negative Freedom in the Iraq War, we see Ali Sistani, the Shiite leader, seemingly alone amongst Mid-Eastern political leaders in defending the principles of the French Jacobin Revolution – such as the Social Contract - in the face of the US’s attempt to steal Iraq’s oil through wholesale privatizations and repression of trade unions.
On the ‘bright side’, Curtis shows how many recent scientific discoveries actually disprove the ideas he has been investigating. Contrary to the model drawn from mathematics and biology of humans as computer-like machines, whose ‘selfish’ instincts have been encoded for millions of years, scientists have now shown that ‘a cell actually chooses and edits which parts of the DNA to use, depending on the environmental forces acting on it’. Mathematician John Nash, whose equations informed the economic models of the Game Theorists in the 1950s, has today recovered from the paranoid schizophrenia he then suffered from and tells Curtis that he thinks ‘humans are more complicated than the human businessman’ and that Game Theory tends to be over-dependent on economic rationality. Studies by the new school of ‘Behavioural Economists’ show that the only truly functional players in Hayekian free market Game Theory are ‘economists and psychopaths’.
‘Travelling Theory’ is a term coined by the Palestinian philosopher and cultural theorist, Edward W. Said. He discussed how political/philosophic theories ‘travel’ to other times and situations, changing their meaning in the process; and sometimes retaining or even expanding their originally power; sometimes losing it. I don’t know whether Curtis's film is directly influenced by Said’s work on this subject, but they are certainly of relevance to each other. One key example examined by Said was George Lukacs' 1922 essay on ‘Reification’ in his book History and Class Consciousness. In this Lukacs put forward a dialectical, Hegelian-Marxist critique of the separation of Values from Facts in capitalist society; a separation which was first formulated by Kant, and was subsequently embodied in the tendency within Social-Democracy to separate political practice from the 'ultimate' goal (socialism). Said suggested that Lukacs’s ideas, forged in the experience of the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, ‘traveled’ to Frantz Fanon in the late 1950s. Said said that Fanon seemed to take from Lukacs an understanding of how ‘rigorous analysis of one central problematic could be relied on to yield the most extensive understanding of the whole.’ Whereas Lukacs confronted the impasse that human subjectivity faces in the objectified and atomized world of capitalism, Fanon’s dialectic is that of the colonizer and the colonized. In Said’s words ‘The Manicheanism Fanon describes separating the clean well-lighted colonial city on the one hand, and on the other the vile disease-ridden darkness of the casbah recalls the alienation of Lukacs’s reified world.’
In Marx’s dialectic of labour and capital there is no possible reconciliation apart from the uprooting of value-production, which is at the same time the self-negation of the working class subject which paveS the way for a classless society. Fanon’s dialectic is of native and colonizer; but as Said pointed out, in Fanon’s theory there is no reconciliation in the political-military victory over the colonialist, for that victory still belongs essentially within ‘the unforgiving dialectic of colonialism, enfolding within its unpromising script.’ For nationalism is too heavily imprinted with this dialectic ever to lead beyond it and a 'discrepancy' develops between the people and their 'anti-imperialist' leaders. I would argue that Political Islam, like the nationalism that Fanon attacked in his great book, The Wretched of the Earth, is imprinted with the same illness; in Hegelian-Marx terms, they both stop at ‘first negation’. Fanon, in 1961 predicted that national consciousness would be captured by the petit-bourgeois leaders of Third World: if nationalism is ‘not enriched and deepened by a very rapid transformation into a consciousness of social and political needs, in other words, into humanism, it leads up a blind alley.’ Humanism: a notion detested by market-fetishists, biological determinists, deep-greens, religious fanatics and Stalino-materialists alike; a notion that gains meaning when it begins to draw the class lines. Which side are you on?
One of the numerous questions that arise from The Trap is whether the ideological worship of the market, or even the market itself, is the root of the problem; or whether the problem lies deeper; in, for example, the domination of living labour by dead labour as described by Marx, which drives the accumulation of capital, and which Communist state-capitalism was a manifestation of. Curtis’s intention no doubt, in the three hours of BBC prime-time available to him, was to provoke debate rather than offer ‘positive’ political solutions or an alternative philosophy. In that he has succeeded and he is brave enough to claim that humanity is still ‘haunted’ by the dream of real freedom.
[Edward W Said’s essay, Travelling Theory Reconsidered, appears in Rethinking Fanon (Ed, Nigel C Gibson), New York 1999.]

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