ADAM CURTIS: Alarm-Clock Films

Cultural Critique in the 21st Century


For those entranced by the essay-films of, say, Chris Marker, the documentaries of Adam Curtis might seem crude. The insistent visual trope of a flashlight probing erratically into a dark, abandoned space full of conduits and wires returns one too many times. Where Marker offers you first-hand accounts of singular voyages and existential encounters full of depth and intensity, Curtis constructs a broad, abstracted picture by splicing together bits of tape from talk-show interviews, promo spots or the odd government-service newsreel. Where Marker clears his throat and plunges into an idiosyncratically unfolding phrase that releases a lifetime of historical experience in a moment of filmic poetry, Curtis clips off his dramatic pronouncements with a chilling diction that rarely varies – a functional replacement for the suspense-building bass line that you end up hearing in your mind, through the involuntary memory of manipulations past. The point is that despite the intellectual depth and visual complexity of Curtis’s work, there is no comparison with the aesthetic subtlety of the essay-film: cinephiles can go back to their darkened theaters. This is TV, made for the anxious postmoderns with their zappers and their 36-inch screens. But what great TV!

The story Curtis has to tell is always fundamentally the same, except for the fantastic attention to detail. He retraces the intellectual history of the twentieth century to find out how arcane psychiatric and managerial ideas became widespread governmental techniques, which in turn have produced what we call our private selves and what we feel as our shared predicament. He has clearly read a lot of Foucault; but he has also developed an expressive practice of the archive. He is more concerned with social reality than with critical theory. What interests him are specific thinkers and inventors, often minor and half-forgotten ones, along with the commercial, political and military decisions that place those forgotten thinkers and inventors at the origin of everything that orders and controls. He never hesitates to follow the labyrinthine path of ideas into the pragmatic world of parties and governments. Political engagement, historical research, incisive theory and an extremely effective use of the televisual medium – offering him upwards of a million viewers per broadcast – have made Curtis into one of the most influential cultural critics of the twenty-first century.

His own technique is to isolate key figures and to interview them personally, or if they are no longer alive, to unearth the historical footage and professorial commentaries that will sum up their discoveries in a nutshell, along with the consequences for society at large. After that he delivers an unsourced barrage of information about social change at a given period and in a given country – usually Britain or the USA – while gradually introducing other privileged thinkers or inventors, and other professorial commentators on them, either as relays, evil twins or dialectical rivals of the first. Accompanying this discourse are both standard documentary treatments of whatever is being discussed, and complex, non-linear edits from an extremely well-researched trove of images: bits of news reports, excerpts of film classics, commercials, scientific, professional or military documents, TV outtakes, experimental cinema, stills, freeze frames, all threaded through each other in a rapid montage, agile and unpredictable like thought itself. Through this virtuoso editing, the audiovisual experience comes very close to reproducing the uncanny gap one often feels between the steady flow of inner discursivity and the startling movements of one’s own imagination.

What the documentarian achieves with his complex technique and probing rhetoric are hour-long bursts of intense awareness that the events we are living through right now have been constructed long in advance, that behind common knowledge there are hidden sciences of control and that government comes down to the choice of a ruling epistemology, about which the public is never sufficiently informed. Like Foucault, Curtis asks one question: “Do you want to be governed like that?” And he asks it with respect to the most contemporary forms of psychological manipulation, of military and security rhetoric, of economic doctrine and labor organization. These are alarm-clock films, wake-up calls for passive populations whose only recourse would be to think sociologically: but not as their masters do.

Genealogies of Power

Like many other people who live out of BBC range and don’t watch TV anyway, I discovered Curtis on the Internet in late 2004, when references started cropping up to The Power of Nightmares.1 The three-part series establishes a genealogy of the War on Terror, beginning with a double portrait in an American frame: the Egyptian writer Sayeed Qutb, who lived briefly in the United States before going on to become the spiritual source of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss, who settled in Chicago and inspired the heroic doctrines of the neoconservatives. Both men, according to Curtis, were revolted by the commercial ignorance and tawdry sexuality of popular democracy in the USA, as they experienced it during the country’s rise to hegemony in the 1940s. When viewed in the light of Qutb’s Islamic morality, the nationalistic fervor of the neocons appears as just one more way of recoiling from the consumerist void. From these very similar conservative convictions an immense and bitter clash of civilizations was born. At the same time, fear became the most valued currency of democratic politics, in a disenchanted world where utopian hopes have been abandoned. The ambiguity of the series is that you never know whether Curtis shares the philosophers’ sense of disgust, or what alternative he would offer to their moralism.

Most of the politically scandalous material is familiar to us now, thanks to hundreds of journalists investigating the obscure relations between the US, the Saudis and the Taliban. But in 2004 the series offered vital insights into the raw historical materials from which the Americans constructed, first an Islamist ally in their struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan, then a hugely exaggerated terrorist threat to replace the structural rivalry of the Cold War. The episodes are still worth watching for a dozen reasons, not least the documents of Qutb and other Muslim Brothers being tortured in Egyptian jails, or the story of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board’s “Team B,” formed under Ford’s presidency to investigate the supposed missile gap between the US and the Soviets. Team B reads as a nearly complete list of the necons: the operation was called for by Albert Wohlstetter, promoted by Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld, and staffed by long-lived vampires such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pipes and Paul Nitzan, the latter having already been the founder of the Cold War era “Committee on the Present Danger” that came back to haunt us in 2004. What could be more urgent to understand than this eternal return of the politically undead?

The claim that Bush and Blair exploited the Al Qaeda menace for geopolitical power agendas is widely accepted today. But getting that claim onto British television in 2004 was quite another story. What’s really shocking is that The Power of Nightmares was never shown on American TV, and remains largely unknown in the land of Infinite Justice.2 The same holds true for Century of the Self (2002), a series on psychiatry’s dubious contributions to who we think we are and what the clever and unscrupulous can do with us.3 The evil-twin relation plays out here between uncle and nephew: the austere and pessimistic Sigmund Freud, who invented psychoanalysis, and his cynical, fortune-seeking relative Edward Bernays, who invented public relations.

To understand Bernays just read his famous essay, “The Engineering of Consent,” still cherished by the PR profession; or better yet, check out his “Torches of Freedom” campaign, a sexy and sassy public gesture conceived to liberate (the disposable income of) women smokers in the 1920s.4 The transfer of knowledge from depth psychology to advertising is obvious: for Bernays, a cigar was never just a cigar. But Curtis’s film becomes historically fascinating as it portrays the degree of authority that Freud’s iconoclastic thought could offer to the guardians of bureaucratic normalcy in 1940s and 1950s America. Even more compelling is the story of Freud’s rejection by the public in the late 1960s, in favor of new injunctions to openly express and explore not just your sexuality, as Wilhelm Reich had proposed, but also your most aggressive and competitive drives, as business guru Werner Erhard taught in the confrontational group encounters of his Erhard Seminars Training (EST), the psychic crucible of a new managerial elite.

Erhard appears as the dialectical rival of Freud: not an evil twin, but a hip Californian sublation of the brooding Austrian analyst. The corporate-friendly 1980s, complete with Yippie Jerry Rubin’s timely reincarnation as a PR exec, come off in the series as the world-that-Erhard-made. The manipulative psychology of the focus group, used by Clinton and then Blair to target narrow individual insecurities or desires, appears in the final section as a logical corollary of this self-centered world.

What’s essential in this film is the ability to track an existential model from its inception in a particular time and place, to its phase of diffusion through the habits and dreams of an entire population. But equally important is the ability to asses its most far-flung consequences, and to analyze the judgments that are subsequently brought to bear on them. To my eyes, the political point is that if the conservative Right has effectively denounced the capitalist worm in the fruit of 1960s experimentalism, the New Left has not been able to formulate a widely shared narrative of its cooptation; nor has it clearly identified what we still find positive in the Nietzschean adventures of those years. Curtis hasn’t done that either, which is his shortfall; but at least he has helped to raise the question. That is what the self-satisfied generations of the Reagan and Clinton eras failed to do, leading to the dead-ends of the present.

Fatal Equilibrium

Curtis tries to analyze our condition of suspended political animation in his latest series, The Trap – What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom.5 Cultural critique, as you find out here, has become devilishly complex in the twenty-first century. In the 1930s the Frankfurt School had to face the socialization of family authority, taken over by the Fascist state dressed up as your dad or your preacher. They could use Freudian psychological theory to track the displacement of the super-ego into the propaganda of state institutions. The kind of power that we now have to face involves the mathematical reduction of all conceivable behavior to probability distributions, allowing for the computer-assisted prediction of minority and majority trends by businessmen and politicians (or whoever else can draw effective conclusions from the vast, meticulous and expensive data-gathering processes). On the one hand, the scientific story of an extremely influential epistemology is begging to be told; but on the other, an understanding of the political reasons behind its massive deployment holds the key to any effective change. This is where thinking sociologically can bring you to the heart of our civilizational predicament. That is, if you’re willing to tease out a few more threads from the history of ideas…

The Trap begins with imagery that is immediately familiar to anyone who has read Paul Edwards’ great book on Cold-War computer science, The Closed World.6 What you see are American military personnel operating the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE early warning system – the sprawling, Pynchonesque white elephant of nuclear paranoia that sparked the industrial development of digital computers and cybernetic systems, despite its functional uselessness for the protection of the United States. Edwards can tell you everything about the way that SAGE morphed into both the automated SABRE airline ticketing network that is still used by all the major airlines today, and into the now-defunct Worldwide Military Command and Control System (1962-1996). Out of the latter came Operation Igloo White, headquartered in Nakhom Phanom in Thailand, which was the US Air Force surveillance center that directed high-altitude bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam, inaugurating the perpetually faked American claims to pinpoint accuracy. But Curtis doesn’t go into all that, because he’s after more rarefied game: namely, the atomic-era game theory developed at an Air Force think tank called the RAND corporation, by a literally crazy mathematician named John Nash.

Everyone remembers the Cold War premise of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and the elaborate system of reciprocal signaling that emerged from it, whereby the construction of new weapons only served to prove that one had recognized the opponent’s firm expectation that any rise in the stakes would be matched by the other side in the most deliberate and rational manner. Game theory was an attempt to establish the mathematical certainties of a war that was far too dangerous to ever be fought in reality. The economic historian Philip Mirowski – who contributes many key ideas to The Trap – explains the RAND corporation mentality in an interview: “They still wanted to say that there was a rational way to approach such a virtual war, and game theory seemed to offer that to them. [The idea] that you could, in a sense, incorporate your enemy into your own thinking; that you could mathematically understand what your enemy would do to the point where you and your enemy will play the exact same set of strategies.”7 But the psychotic Nash (who according to Curtis was hardly the gentle hero portrayed in the Hollywood movie A Beautiful Mind) took the theory much further, applying it to the everyday actions of entire populations:

He made the fundamental assumption that all human behavior was exactly like that involved in the hostile, competitive world of the nuclear standoff, that human beings constantly watched and monitored each other, and to get what they wanted, they would adjust their strategies to each other. In a series of equations for which he would win the Nobel prize, Nash showed that a system driven by suspicion and selfishness did not have to lead to chaos. He proved that there could always be a point of equilibrium, in which everyone’s self-interest was perfectly balanced against each other.

In classic Curtis fashion, the last sentence, defining the concept of the Nash equilibrium, unfolds against three views of the same busy, four-lane city street: the first, close up and agitated, from a skewed diagonal vantage that emphasizes erratic movement; the second, still off-center, at a middle distance that accentuates the globular flow of the automobiles; and the third, a stable, orthogonal shot from above, revealing a single straight line of cars and a perfect grid of intersections, with traffic crossing first from one direction, then from the other and so on in infinite binary regress.

The German socialist Ferdinand Lassalle famously remarked that nineteenth-century liberalism had reduced the state to the status of a night watchman. But in the original text he adds: “or a traffic policeman.” Classical liberalism was already about regulating economic flows, ordering the business of the city. But postwar economics had to develop an abstract calculus of conflict resolution that could be applied via technological systems to vast populations. What the image of the city streets suggests is that the realization of a Nash equilibrium on a twentieth-century scale requires the work of a traffic engineer steeped in the political-economic abstractions of game theory. Control, in this scenario, means the isolation of atomized individuals within privatized and often highly paranoid bubbles of self-interest, like automobilists moving through the traffic-planner’s grid. In the rush to get ahead – to beat the traffic, or the market, or the odds, or whatever – they relentlessly calculate each others’ strategies and try to counteract them in myriad ways that ultimately cancel each other out, while the red-and-green patterns of the carefully timed signal lights reign supreme.

What postwar America exported to the world – in collaboration with its major ally, Britain – was a cybernetic concept of homeostasis, whereby an organism or a machine achieves a state of dynamic equilibrium by continuously adjusting its control parameters to any changes in the environment. The new generation of feedback systems that emerged after 1945 were all designed to maintain this kind of dynamic equilibrium, or “ultrastability,” which appeared as a fundamental value after the chaos of the Great Depression and the Second World War.8 Curtis, however, is not primarily interested in specific technologies or in the models of interaction that they embody. His concern in The Trap is more general and overarching: society’s abandonment of any individual responsibility or collective vision beneath the dictates of a mathematicized economics of human behavior, promising certainty and prosperity by the numbers and denying an effective role for politics in social existence.

“We will benefit our fellow men most if we are guided solely by the striving for gain,” claims the father of neoliberal economics, Friedrich von Hayek, in the first archival interview of the series. “For this purpose we have to return to an automatic system which brings this about, a self-directing automatic system which alone can restore the liberty and prosperity,” he continues in Strangelovian tones. “What about altruism, where does that come in?” asks the British interviewer. “Ah… it doesn’t come in,” replies Hayek after a brief hesitation. For a moment his face, equipped with a hearing aid, also seems to hesitate in time, caught in a freeze frame, staring out from the ghostly archives of television.

Statistical Madness

The first installment of The Trap is largely concerned with the Cold War theory of homo economicus. The second returns to this “machine model of human beings,” examining its expression in theories of the genetic encoding of behavior and in psychiatric treatment of anxiety by drugs alone, according to strictly objective diagnostic criteria. But most importantly, the second part explores the social destinies of individual self-interest, in an age when every citizen is conceived as a little information-processor elaborating strategies of monetary gain within a rule-governed economic system.

In the British civil service under Blair, and more broadly, under the 1990s paradigm of “the new public management,” game-theory models gave rise to techniques of continuous statistical self-monitoring. Section chiefs were given salary incentives to meet improvement targets expressed by means of bar graphs; but the methods they should use to change the readouts on the graphs were left to their own initiative. This reification of responsibilities not only alienated the new managers, but also spread through society the normative model of a calculating individual, bereft of fellow-feeling, cooperative spirit, ideals of the public good or any other sense of solidarity. The result, Curtis insists, has been a dramatic rise in social inequality. And this whole pattern was introduced, we are told, in the late 1980s under the government of Mrs. Thatcher, who confided the reform of the National Health Service to an American economist, Alain Enthoven – a man who studied game theory at RAND in the 1950s, then worked in the 1960s for Secretary of Defense McNamara as the primary strategist of nuclear deterrence.

Trusting the numbers became a kind of religion with the government of Tony Blair. “The Treasury under Gordon Brown invented a vast mathematical system,” recounts Curtis. “They invented way of giving numerical values to things that previously no one thought could be measured. Hunger in sub-Saharan Africa was to be reduced to below 48%, while world conflict was to be reduced by 6%. And all the towns and villages in Britain were to be measured for a community vibrancy index. And even the quality of life in the countryside was to be broken down into a series of indices, one of which measured how much birdsong there should be.” What passes for comic relief in The Trap is a shot of a plump, blue-suited bureaucrat reporting that since 1970s, half the skylarks have disappeared. “And if you want to measure the quality of life,” he exclaims, “one of the things that counts is that dawn chorus!”

Less comical are the interviews with National Health Service auditors, who found out that hospital managers were particularly ingenious when it came to meeting their performance targets: they would do the most innocuous operations first, so as to cut down the numbers on the waiting-lists, or they would schedule surgery during patients’ vacations, as an easy way to get them momentarily out of the queue. Blair’s performance targets rapidly appeared disastrous; and what is more, Curtis indicates, the economic theory on which they were based began to be seriously cast into doubt around the turn of the millennium.

In a strange and arresting interview, the mathematician John Nash admits to having suffered from delirium and explains that in reality, human motivations are far more complex than any model based on the simple idea of self-interest could ever convey. The images of the frail, hesitant Nash exposing his own mistaken trust in the rational order provide a strong sense of closure for the second episode. Without citing his sources, Curtis claims that a new discipline called behavioral economics has done studies to find out if people really behaved as the theories of self-interest predicted they would. The only ones who did, it seems, were economists themselves – and psychotics.9

Neolib Goes Neocon

To evoke the genesis of government by statistics Curtis could have focused on the aggressive scientific genius John von Neumann, who not only developed the logical architecture of the computers used in the SAGE early warning system, but was also the author, with Oskar Morgenstern, of The Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), the book that launched an entire discipline. If Curtis chose instead to highlight the Nash equilibrium, it was undoubtedly because of the fascinating interview he obtained. But it was also because Nash’s vision of a perfectly privatized, entirely neutralized social order fit into a broader analysis of Cold War political strategy, foreshadowed throughout the series but only made explicit in the final part. This larger strategy involves the adherence of the Western democracies to a doctrine that philosopher Isaiah Berlin defined as “negative freedom.”10 For Berlin this is freedom from governmental constraint, the freedom to decide privately on a private destiny – at antipodes from the revolutionary notion of a positive freedom to change the world and to remake society in the image of a higher ideal. The price of such positive freedom, according to Berlin, was always totalitarianism.

From the liberal viewpoint, the preference for negative freedom arises from a radical skepticism about the powers of the state. “I hate government. I hate power. I think that man’s existence, insofar as he achieves anything, is to resist power, to minimize power, to devise systems of society in which power is the least exerted,” insists the British pundit Malcolm Muggeridge in a fragment from a TV interview. If not for the emphatic tone, one could mistake his ideas for those of 1960s critics such as Michel Foucault. Yet the series shows clearly how this kind of freedom-loving posture can be used by the Right. The “public choice theory” of American political scientist James Buchanan justified liberal skepticism and hostility to the social state by pointing to the ways how officials personally profited from their positions. The solution was to slash government budgets in order to eliminate such temptations. By these paths, the logic of negative freedom ultimately led to the disavowal of any possibility of genuine commitment to public service. And in Curtis’s reading of the 1960s and 1970s, radical critiques of institutional authority came to dovetail with the anti-revolutionary stance of Isiah Berlin, thus giving total legitimacy to the supposedly objective, depersonalized equilibrium of a game-theoretical world.

Developing an historical irony, Curtis points to the way that renegade psychiatrist R.D. Laing used game theory to analyze family dynamics, showing how they internalized the dominant forms of political struggle for power and control. “People induced their children to adjust to life by poisoning themselves to a level of subsistence existence,” the psychiatrist explains in an interview filmed in the 1960s. Laing used his bleak portrait of intimate relations to attack all claims of morality and disinterested public service, as held up by psychiatric institutions in particular.11 But the unforeseen consequence of this attack, claims Curtis, was yet another victory of depersonalized society: the introduction of purely objective criteria for the diagnosis of mental illness (the Diagnostic Symptoms Manual), and the almost universal recourse to drugs like Prozac to help people adjust to difficult situations in life, rather than confronting consciously and solving them. The dead-end of negative freedom and its purely private destinies is a life without any meaning or purpose – which, for Curtis, is exactly what the winners of the Cold War have sought to impose on the rest of the world.

The strong point of The Trap’s third section is to reveal how the pretense to democratic objectivity and axiomatic neutrality is gradually shattered at the very heart of the Western political system, not only on the religiously inflected American Right, but also with the rise of New Labour in Britain. First Reagan, then Blair and Bush begin to seek a wider meaning for politics, attempting to export the Western system of self-regulating democracy by force of arms if necessary – attempting, in other words, to remake the world in the image of an idealized negative freedom. In so doing, Curtis claims, they unwittingly go down the same path that leads from the French revolutionary Terror to the more recent calls for violent liberation espoused by Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Pol Pot or the Iranian insurrectionalist Ali Shariati. What is envisioned in the contemporary West, however, is not any kind of collective transformation based on solidarity or community. Instead, the neoconservatives try to impose on the entire earth and all its peoples the freedom to decide privately on a private destiny.

There are two major examples of this contradiction at the heart of neoconservatism. The first concerns the disastrous restructuring of the Russian economy after the fall of the Soviet Union, following the shock therapy dictates of Jeffrey Sachs. Ordinary Russians, now living in a democracy, suffered extraordinary hardship as the Russian economy was brought brutally into line with Western prices and rule-sets, under intense pressure from the IMF. For Curtis this is a radically impoverished or shrunken version of democracy, in which the electoral facade merely covers a predatory economic system. The result in Russia was the economic collapse of 1998, then the ascension of Putin to power, documented by impressive sequences in which the Russian leader describes the breakdown of society in the 1990s and the reasons why firm military authority is now more relevant to his people than democracy.

The second example revolves around the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, then the extremely summary establishment in those two countries of electoral democracies that do not even include the right to unionized labor. This sham democratization is followed by the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism as a response to invasion on all levels. Curtis shows forcefully what most politicians, public intellectuals and commentators in the West still refuse to accept: that worldwide opposition to the democratic program arises not just from fear of modernity and atavistic regression, but above all in reaction to the intense exploitation, oppression and domination put into effect by that same “democratic” program.

Curtis tries to clinch all this by referring to a letter written by Blair to Isaiah Berlin shortly before the philosopher’s death in 1997, in which the Labour party leader evokes both an existential void and the urgent need to overcome it:

You seem to be saying… that because traditional socialism no longer exists, there is no Left. But surely the Left over the last 200 years has been based on a value system, predating the Soviet model and living on beyond it. As you say, the origins of the Left lie in opposition to arbitrary authority, intolerance and hierarchy. The values remain as strong as ever, but no longer have a ready made vehicle to take them forward. That seems to me to be today’s challenge.

Blair is portrayed as an idealist without a cause, or more precisely, as an idealist who is incapable of a having a cause, because of the very content of his ideals. Yet he goes to war anyway, with a vengeance. The “just war” that he called for in Kosovo, followed by the anti-terrorist crusades of Afghanistan and Iraq, were the symptoms of an intrinsically contradictory desire to fill the existential gap, by imposing a positive ideal of negative liberty.

As in The Power of Nightmares, the suggestion here is that the democratic ideologues share something essential with the Islamic fundamentalists, namely a kind of horror vacui before the failings of market hegemony. But much has been added. Curtis is no longer equivocal about his own feeling of revulsion toward market society. He recognizes that feeling as a primary motivator across the political spectrum, pinpoints its origins in the application of mathematical reason to large-scale policies and programs of social engineering, and catalogues the diverse range of consequences it is now producing in different regions of the globe and at different class levels of world society. Above all, he points to its deep internal contradiction. The Trap is a probing and often very successful effort to come to grips with one of the great political enigmas of the present: how a supremely rationalized version of laissez-faire capitalism suddenly collapses back into religious moralism and the geopolitical claims of imperial authority. In short, how neolib goes neocon.

Last Look

What’s impressive in the recent work of Adam Curtis is the ability to follow a complex paradigm like game theory through an intricate tissue of changing historical contexts, showing how it continues to influence society today. Yet this attachment to a “red thread” tends to minimize the effects of dissent and conflict on the meanings and applications of analytical models; and therefore Curtis ends up portraying nearly everyone as the unwitting mouthpiece of a diabolical idea. Both the substance and the effects of major intellectual debates are lost in this way.

At the very outset of The Trap, for instance, Friedrich von Hayek is made into the spokesman of the mechanistic Cold War economists, through his declaration of the need for “a self-directing automatic system which alone can restore liberty and prosperity.” What Curtis fails to mention is that Hayek was entirely out of favor with the Anglo-American establishment of the time, which had thoroughly converted to Keynesian economic and military planning and tended to reason as though the production and distribution requirements of entire nations could be calculated by supercomputers. Hayek, to the contrary, believed that no one could ever assemble all the information needed to run a modern economy. What could do the job were the price signals of the market, which gave individuals sufficient information to make profitable decisions on their own, while at the same time insuring the best allocation of productive resources. This meant that market society was an emergent, self-organizing phenomenon – far from the mathematical certainties sought by the Cold Warriors.12 Hayek’s views only came into favor in the late 1970s, when governments and corporations sought a way out of the stagnation into which the highly rationalized mass-production economies had fallen.

This could seem like a detail: after all, Hayek’s economic thinking retains the key principle of self-interest that Curtis is tracking across the decades. Yet by avoiding this detail, Curtis skirts the entire debate over state planning versus corporate self-organization, which has deeply colored all of social development from the 1980s onward. The transformation of top-down planning techniques into a diffuse, bottom-up governmentality where the calculation of economic strategy becomes the responsibility of each individual would have been unimaginable without Hayek’s neoliberal concept of social organization. And this transformation of economic theory is inseparable from a broader epistemological shift, whereby the cybernetic logic of stable homeostatic systems and clearly traceable feedback loops is replaced by the theories of chaos and complexity, with their attention to emergent phenomena in situations far from equilibrium. Epistemology, in its turn, is inseparable from technopolitics: the concept of the market as an information system for a self-organizing society was a tremendous spur to the development of the Internet and personal computing. Yet all these are non-debates for Curtis, who seems to believe that social change can be entirely explained by the application of state power. The characteristic reflexivity of “second-order cybernetics” – elaborated in social terms by an entire spectrum of contemporary thinkers, from Beck and Giddens to Deleuze and Guattari or Hardt and Negri – is flatly ignored, along with its political predicaments and potentials. Yet it is in these arenas that the dominant logics of the corporations and the state are now being forged and contested, while new forms of collective freedom are invented in response.

The lack of any attention to progressive social experimentation is the weakest point of Curtis’s recent work. And sometimes it leads to real distorsions. Throughout The Trap and also in The Century of the Self, Curtis insinuates that the counter-cultural critique of institutional authority is to blame for ruining the foundations of social trust. Yet at the same time, his own analysis shows how that critique was motivated by the very real dead ends of Cold War society. At worst, his condemnation of Leftist nihilism seems to hark back to some Golden Age of responsible public service that it would be difficult to find in reality. What is more, he skirts uncomfortably close to the discourse of neoconservativism itself, as formulated in the early 1970s by one of its elder statesmen, the American essayist Irving Kristol. In the face of the New Left’s critique of technocratic capitalism, Kristol offered this diagnosis:

One of the keystones of modern economic thought is that it is impossible to have an a priori knowledge of what constitutes happiness for other people; that such knowledge is incorporated in an individual’s “utility schedules”; and this knowledge, in turn, is revealed by the choices the individual makes in a free market…. What we are witnessing in Western society today [with the New Left] are the beginnings of a counterrevolution against this conception of man and society. It is a shamefaced counterrevolution, full of bad faith and paltry sophistry, because it feels compelled to define itself as some kind of progressive extension of modernity instead of what it so clearly is, a reactionary revulsion against modernity…. For well over a hundred and fifty years now, social critics have been warning us that bourgeois society was living off the accumulated moral capital of traditional religion and traditional moral philosophy, and that once this capital was depleted, bourgeois society would find its legitimacy ever more questionable… It is becoming clear that religion, and a moral philosophy associated with religion, is far more important politically than the philosophy of liberal individualism admits… The enemy of liberal capitalism today is not so much socialism as nihilism.13

Reading Kristol, one realizes that the debates of the 1970s on both the conservative Right and the New Left turned around responses to the hollowness and existential futility of the postwar technocracies. It is surprising that Curtis, with his extraordinary ability to follow the paths of ideas through recent history, does not seem to realize how explicitly the broad lines of his own argument were formulated on the Right as early as the 1970s. The shift from neoliberalism to neoconservatism that we witnessed in the first decade of the new millennium was predicted and guided far in advance by figures like Kristol, whose key insight was that in highly complex societies, the power and coherence of religious belief was an invaluable resource of governance. To overcome the manipulative political norms that the neocons have put into place, the Left does have to argue at least partially on their terrain (the problem of nihilism), but certainly not in their terms (the inevitability of a religious or communitarian belief system). After such a brilliant rehearsal of complex historical debates, it is disappointing to hear Curtis relapsing, as he occasionally does, into a moralizing language that recalls Etzioni and the communitarians, or worse, the mumblings of Prince Charles about the failure of modern architecture.

Curtis ends the The Trap with a grand rhetorical plea, delivered on top of a swelling orchestral rendition of “La Marseillaise,” against a backdrop of rather ludicrous slow-motion images of ordinary people running a marathon: “Our government relies on a simplistic economic model of human beings, that allows inequality to grow and offers nothing positive in the face of the reactionary forces they have helped to awake around the world. If we ever want to escape from this limited world view, we will have to rediscover the progressive, positive ideas of freedom.”

One can only hope that Curtis himself will soon explore the positive content of such ideas – or that the bracing qualities of his alarm-clock films will encourage others to do so. The strength of his work lies in its power to awaken us to historical transformation, at a time when neoliberalism itself is fading into the same background blur that now surrounds the rationalist modernism of the Cold War. Yet awakening implies action, or indeed, invention. As the contorted visage of Hayek recedes into the backdrops of memory, what lingers in your mind is unfortunately not any new idea, but instead, the image of Putin slowly raising his eyes, then deliberately staring with the gaze of resurgent authority. Progressive cultural critique has much left to achieve in the twenty-first century.




1 Adam Curtis, The Power of Nightmares (180’, 2004), TV series in three parts: Baby it’s Cold Outside (broadcast on BBC 2 on October 20), The Phantom Victory (October 27) and The Shadows in the Cave (November 3); available for download at

2 Curtis reflects on this situation in an article by Stuart Jeffries, “The film US TV networks dare not show,” The Guardian, May 12, 2005: “Something extraordinary has happened to American TV since September 11…. A head of the leading networks who had better remain nameless said to me that there was no way they could show it. He said, ‘Who are you to say this?’ and then he added, ‘We would get slaughtered if we put this out.’… When I was in New York I took a DVD to the head of documentaries at HBO. I still haven’t heard from him.”

3 Adam Curtis, The Century of the Self (240’, 2002), TV series in four parts: Happiness Machines (broadcast on BBC 4 on April 29, 2002), The Engineering of Consent (April 30, 2002), There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed (May 1, 2002), Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering (May 2, 2002); available for download at (search for “Century of the Self”).

4 Edward L. Bernays, “The Engineering of Consent,” in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 250 (March, 1947), pp. 113-120; Curtis includes visual material about the “Torches of Freedom” operation.

5 Adam Curtis, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom (180’, 2002), TV series in three parts: Fuck You Buddy (broadcast on BBC 2 on March 11, 2007), The Lonely Robot (March 18, 2007), We Will Force You To Be Free (March 25, 2007); available on Google video.

6 Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996).

7 For detailed explorations of the major economic questions raised in The Trap, see Philip Mirowski, Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science (Cambridge U.P., 2002).

8 The cybernetic concept of homeostasis was introduced, along with a machine called a “homeostat,” by the British cybernetician W. Ross Ashby, Design for a Brain (London: Chapman and Hall, 1952). See also the description of the homeostat in Andrew Pickering, “Cybernetics and the Mangle: Ashby, Beer and Pask,” in Social Studies of Science 32/3 (June 2002), pp. 413-437.

9 I couldn’t find the study to which Curtis refers, but for a survey of recent work along similar lines see Samuel Bowles, “Policies Designed for Self-Interested Citizens May Undermine ‘The Moral Sentiments’: Evidence from Economic Experiments,” Science 320 (June 2008), pp. 1605-09.

10 Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” inaugural lecture at the University of Oxford on October 31, 1958, published in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford U.P., 1990/1st ed. 1969).

11 Curtis’s treatment of R.D. Laing undoubtedly misses everything the renegade psychiatrist was after, when he began to take notes on interpersonal strategies within the family. Compare the assessment of Laing’s use of game-theoretical notation by Gerald Alper, “The Theory of Games and Psychoanalysis,” in Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 23/1 (1993), pp. 54-55: “We can not help but note the striking similarity of the stark regularity of Laing’s pattern and the behavioral strategies which game theorists love to postulate. Yet, there is a huge difference. Despite the beauty of near precision, there is nothing quantitative, mathematical, logical, or even cognitive about Laing’s patterns. As a matter of fact, especially in Knots, Laing appears to derive mischievous pleasure in the self-defeating, schizoid entanglements he is at pains to unfold. This is understandable once it is recognized that Laing’s patterns are psychodynamic to the core, shot through with meaning, intrapsychic as well as interpersonal, and have little if anything to do with hypothesized costs and benefits or cognitive, adaptive strategies.”

12 Cf. Friedrich von Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 159: “Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective co-ordination of human activities without deliberate organization by a commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each individual.” See also“The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in The American Economic Review 35/4 (1945), were, Hayek describes the price mechanism as “a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement” (p.. 527).

13 Irving Kristol, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Nihilism” (1973), in Neoconservatism, the Autobiogaraphy of an Idea (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1995), pp. 92-105.

15 Responses to “ADAM CURTIS: Alarm-Clock Films”

  1. ryan Says:

    Glad to read your critique of Curtis’ works Brian, as we just recently finished watching the three series you mention (The Trap, Power of Nightmares and the Century of the Self). It is certainly disappointing, if not surprising that they are not more widely known in the US. We came across them on Google video and about a year or so ago. Watching them all in such close order, your observation of Curtis’ use of singular texts as a thread is right on, and i think that holds true across the three series as well as within them – there is quite a bit of overlap and consistency in their trajectories.

  2. Benjamin Geer Says:

    A very useful review, thanks!

  3. Honestly Says:

    This is rambling, pseudo-intellectual bullshit.

  4. >> mind the __ GAP* ? » Blog Archive » Cultural critique has much left to achieve Says:

    […] .. and now to go on with the article which attracted my attention and brought me there: NEOLIB GOES NEOCON – Adam Curtis, or Cultural Critique in the 21st Century. After giving a short introduction to A.Curtis and his method of working he specifically reviews […]

  5. Sanity For Sale Says:

    good work. have not been able to find any of Chris Marker’s work though which is a pity.

    curtis does rule supreme in the docu making arena. he has probably opened more eyes recently than anyone else.

  6. gb Says:

    I would like to know which book “provided the red thread along which the narrative unfolds” for “Century of the Self”?

  7. brianholmes Says:

    Hello GB –

    A fellow named David Ryan wrote to me:

    “You might be interested to know that the Century of the Self relies heavily on Stuart Ewen’s book “Spin: A Social History of PR” which is a very good read BTW.”

    I haven read it but I am working on the book “Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes A Cyborg Science.” A 600-pager which I’m not sure I can recommend to everyone… or even sure I can finish myself!

    • Nicholas Roberts Says:

      the most fascinating snippet from Cyborg Science was the taxonomy of markets, the kind of Chomskyian Grammer for Markets.

      The idea of designing “markets” that are so different from the mechanisms we have now is really powerful, and the taxonomy seems really useful

      I am wondering a lot about commons systems …

      • Brian Holmes Says:

        Hi Nicholas –

        Now it’s been five years and I totally forgot the taxonomy snippet. Can you tell more?
        That said, the idea of designing markets has been huge in governmental strategies for a long time. Regulate and tax a given activity in such a way that a particular kind of market comes into being. The big example is carbon trading. I remember pawing through heaps of literature on that kind of thing. What you are talking about must be quite different?

        best, BH

  8. Adam Curtis - Documentaries « Kevin Flanagan Says:

    […] […]

  9. Book Materials « Continental Drift Says:

    […] –Adam Curtis: Cultural Critique in the 21st Century […]

  10. diagonal thoughts » Blog Archive » Adam Curtis’ Alarm-Clock films Says:

    […] and his latest ‘The Trap – What Happened to our Dream of Freedom’ (which is, as Brian Holmes suggests, about “coming to grips with one of the great enigmas of the present: how neolib […]

  11. Acutia Says:

    Good thorough overview Brian. Have anybody else noticed the prevalence around the web of really shallow understandings of Curtis’s films, especially by those on the left addled by conspiracy fixations.
    I have the feeling that Curtis’ research for “The Power of Nightmares” may have drawn strongly on both Paul Berman’s “Terror and Liberalism” and maybe Buruma and Margalit’s “Occidentalism”. That’s just my guess though.

    You can catch a recentish interview with Curtis regarding his views of the internet, its effects on news journalism and his hopes for how the internet will allow him to make his films even more complex and knotted with details.

  12. Book - machine quotidienne Says:

    […] 16-Adam Curtis: Alarm-Clock Films […]

  13. Sammy McNight Says:

    Fascinating essay and yes a Chris Marker of lesser artistic prowess and yes an alarm clock merchant. Enjoyed.

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