The wrong kind of freedom

The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom?, by Adam Curtis (first shown on BBC2, March 2007)

‘The Communists said they would make a new man. They have succeeded – and he is lazy.’ This was my (West German) Godfather’s verdict on East Germany’s Communist experiment. The unexpected conclusion of Adam Curtis’ three-part BBC series is that liberal democracies have similarly diminished our humanity, not by deliberately setting out as the Communists did to make a perfect society, but simply by organising around an impoverished notion of freedom.

The final episode of the series, ‘We Will Force You To Be Free’ (BBC2, Sunday at 9pm), draws on Isaiah Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. Berlin preferred the limited notion of ‘negative liberty’ from state interference to the more ambitious idea of ‘positive liberty’, in which people take political action to transform society. The Soviet experience suggested that the latter could end in tyranny rather than the deeper freedom its advocates promised. The argument Curtis puts forward in The Trap is that over the past several decades, champions of negative liberty began to use the techniques of positive liberty. They transformed Western society in order to shake off the last vestiges of unfreedom, and sought to establish the same negative liberty in the rest of the world too. Ultimately this has left us with the worst of both worlds: revolution without idealism, war without meaning.

There is obvious continuity with The Power of Nightmares, Curtis’ 2004 critique of the War on Terror, but on a more profound level The Trap continues the argument of his 2002 series The Century of the Self, which located the consumerist politics of New Labour at the end of a compelling narrative going back to Freud and taking in the birth of the public relations industry and the hippy politics of self-realisation. The key insight in all the programmes is the importance to politics and society more generally of psychological dispositions, and our very conception of what it means to be a human being.

The title of The Trap‘s first episode, ‘Fuck You, Buddy’, is taken from a game devised by the mathematician John Nash, who worked on game theory at the RAND Corporation think tank during the Cold War. The premise of game theory is that ‘players’ are fundamentally isolated and mutually antagonistic, like the Cold War superpowers. Rather than seeking compromise, the best that can be hoped for is equilibrium: if each player ruthlessly pursues his self-interest, and assumes that the other is doing the same, the delicate balance of power is maintained. If either player acts altruistically, or even takes a risk for mutual benefit, he is inevitably screwed by the other: fuck you, buddy.

It turns out, however, that when secretaries at the RAND Corporation were asked to play Nash’s game, they played differently, co-operating freely and reaping the benefits, rather than playing safe by trying to betray one another. While it was never an accurate reflection of how people actually behave, Curtis argues that in the paranoid context of the Cold War, game theory became increasingly influential in government. More surprisingly its assumptions were also apparent in the anti-psychiatry movement led by RD Laing. This view of human nature effectively became institutionalised, while older institutions based on public service, altruism and trust, were undermined or destroyed. This militant rejection of social obligations and mutual responsibility was the driving force of Thatcher-Reaganism, with the unshackled market regarded as the mechanism through which individuals could best pursue their own self-interest.

Game theory is an interesting way of understanding the atomised view of interpersonal relationships that Curtis persuasively argues underpins contemporary culture, but his suggestion that it is actually responsible for this is less convincing. It is to his credit that Curtis takes ideas seriously, and acknowledges that they shape politics, rather than being a simple reflection of economic realities, for example. (In a recent discussion on BBC Radio 3, he rightly dismissed the latter view as belonging to the ‘vulgar left’.) But the process by which ideas become influential at any given time and place is not straightforward.

Several critics have suggested that The Trap is peddling a conspiracy theory. This is a lazy misinterpretation, but it arises from a certain arbitrariness in Curtis’ account, an overemphasis on particular individuals and their particular ideas. Sometimes, the effect is similar to that if Karl Marx had argued in Capital that Adam Smith invented the commodity in the eighteenth century, and the subsequent development of capitalism was a result of the idea catching on. The point is, rather, that the idea of the commodity emerged in tandem with material developments; neither would have been possible without the other. To be fair to Curtis, though, his emphasis on ideas and political actors is a valuable corrective not just to vulgar materialism, but to a more general fatalism that dominates contemporary politics, the sense that things just happen and there’s nothing we can do about it. The very suggestion that a different way of thinking about freedom might suggest an alternative politics is liberating.

And in fact, the wealth of intellectual and political currents discussed by Curtis is testament to the depth of the trend he is describing, showing that it is far from being a conspiracy cooked up by a few individuals. In the second episode, ‘The Lonely Robot’, Curtis looks at how distrust of politicians and other professions has led to an increasing focus on ‘the numbers’. Bill Clinton’s announcement in 1996 that ‘the era of big government is over’ was less about freeing individuals to live their own lives than handing control over to anonymous systems, markets and pseudo-markets that would manage conflicting interests. The first act of the New Labour government in the UK the following year was to cede democratic control over interest rates to the bureaucrats at the Bank of England.

Meanwhile, distrust of the medical profession led to a parallel trend in psychiatry, with clinical judgement giving way to a raft of new syndromes and disorders with supposedly objective symptoms that could be analysed by computers. The idea that there was a single, ‘right’, way to think and feel resonated in the culture more widely, and ordinary feelings like loneliness and sadness came to be seen as illnesses to be treated. Curtis shows how this chimed with ideas coming from evolutionary biology, which emphasised ‘the gene’s point of view’, presenting human beings as machines rather than rational actors – much less thinking, feeling people. The context for all of this, which is underplayed by Curtis except in his brief discussion of ‘positive liberty’, is the gradual failure or defeat of political movements and ideologies that gave meaning to the subjective aspirations of individuals, and connected them with something greater.

While the argument is sometimes bewildering – it repays a second viewing – it is always gripping, and Curtis’ use of archive footage is inspired. For example, Isaiah Berlin’s negative liberty is illustrated with images of 1950s Americana: families at play, a man driving through the suburbs in his convertible, a couple waterskiing, and so on. This vision of individuals and families in the pursuit of happiness is a world away from the more exciting but menacing images of French revolutionaries from a faded old film, complete with scary music, or the clips from The Battle of Algiers, with its pulsating, angst-inducing soundtrack. You can see the appeal of the American dream, even as you sense its emptiness.

In footage from Iraq shown in the final episode, an American soldier is asked to explain what he is doing there. ‘Trying to change these people’s way of… I dunno.’ The hesitation is telling: presumably, he was about to say ‘change these people’s way of life’, and then realised it sounds wrong. American politicians like to talk about defending their own way of life, not changing other people’s. Isn’t everyone entitled to his own way of life, whatever anyone else thinks? Isn’t that the American dream? So how can it be imposed, or even argued over? The problem Curtis describes perhaps hinges on this contradiction at the heart of liberal democracy.

For some of us, there is nothing wrong in principle with changing people’s way of life. That’s the point of politics. But while the early neocons discussed in The Trap called themselves ‘democratic revolutionaries’, they never had the stomach for real revolution: the idea was to rescue people from tyranny, and then sit back and watch the world enjoy democracy. Waterskiing and what not. But it’s not enough, and unless you can engage people’s passions and aspirations for something more, you can’t even get there. Real freedom still beckons, for Iraq, for Britain, the US and beyond.The Trap is a timely reminder that we can only get there by taking political risks, not least by trusting one another as fellow human beings.

First published on Culture Wars.