Monday, December 5, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I try hard not to turn these “Something Thoughtful” spots into advertisements, but there are times when something seems important enough to bring to your attention.

If you have not already done so, could I suggest you find the time to search Youtube, access the documentaries of Adam Curtis, and watch them?

I have so far watched three of Curtis’s series viz. The Century of the Self, The Trap and his most recent HyperNormalisation. I am aware that no one commentator is right about everything, and there are some things in Curtis’s programmes that I find contestable. I am aware that there are moments in Curtis’s series where things are oversimplified or generalisations are made. Even so, I find Curtis’s series to be the most persuasive things the mass media have given us on the current state of what is loosely called “Western” civilisation and its culture and economics.

To summarise briefly what I have seen: 

Made and first broadcast by the BBC in 2002, The Century of the Self is regrettably presented on Youtube in a very “low resolution” download. If you are watching it on Youtube (I understand it is also available on DVD), it is therefore advisable to choose a small-screen format. Basically Curtis argues that personal freedom is held up as the highest value of Western democracy, but in the process, personal freedom is manipulated by both corporations and governments, producing a society of individualist consumers who feel no solidarity with their fellow human beings.

As Curtis tells it, Freudian psychoanalysis was originally touted as a means of freeing the individual. But in no time Freudian techniques were used, first by advertising agencies, and then by politicians, to create a consumer society based on desires rather than needs. The herd was being controlled. In the 1960s radical (and often quite flaky) “alternatives” to Freudianism emerged – EST, the “Human Potential” movement etc., again claiming that they would produce greater individual freedom. But making the individual the centre of our concerns leads to an atomised society  - hence in the 1970s and 1980s the rise of neo-liberalism, the deconstruction of the welfare state, and Margaret Thatcher’s fatuous dogma “There is no such thing as society – there are only individuals making choices.” Freedom means the freedom to shop, to make consumer choices, and to create our own exclusive bubbles. Lack of solidarity with society at large also means that individuals are more easily manipulated.

I suppose we are most persuaded by what we half believe in anyway, so I admit that my favourable response to Curtis’ The Century of the Self  has much to do with Curtis’s confirming that I already thought. I have long believed that the hippie slogan “Do your own thing in your own time” had as its corollary “…and other people can get stuffed”. It became respectable to be selfish (“Greed is Good!”) on the assumption that other people are just as self-absorbed as we are, and besides, they have no right to call on the rest of society if they are in need, because there is no such thing as society… 

These ideas are explored from another perspective in Adam Curtis’s The Trap, three 60-minute-long episodes first broadcast by the BBC in 2007. Curtis begins by considering “game theory”, the system devised by strategists during the Cold War when they hypothesised on how the enemy might behave in a future nuclear war. The essence of “game theory” was the assumption that everybody acts first of all in his/her own self-interest. Those who act on humanitarian principles, or out of a sense of solidarity with their fellow human beings, are “suckers” who are likely to lose a nuclear exchange.

There is the remote possibility that this theory might have had some validity in the area of military strategy. But essentially game theory was applied to the economic organisation of society by the “Chicago school” and others. People are self-interested. Therefore people’s self-interest, rather than their altruism, should be appealed to. It amused me enormously to see how the once-fashionable RD Laing was shown by Curtis to be part of this slide, with his (now disproven) theories that families cause schizophrenia and that only the individual matters. Ditto the inane reductionism of Richard Dawkins, seeing human beings merely as machine-like packages to carry genes – his “selfish gene” ideology. Both were/are part of the matrix that fed into – or fed upon - neo-liberal economics, where everybody is seen to be selfish and making “rational” decisions based on that selfishness. Again, goodbye welfare state. Curtis showed President Bill Clinton’s Democrat government and Tony Blair’s “New” Labour succumbing to this ideology at about the same time, cutting welfare programmes on the pretext of efficiency and to catch the votes of a middle-class who had been taught to resent having their taxes supporting people less prosperous than themselves. After all, the poor are only poor because they have made “bad choices”, right?

The third Curtis series of my ken is HyperNormalisation, broadcast by the BBC in October 2016, and therefore able to discuss the Donald Trump phenomenon, among other things. The slide from solidarity to (illusory and manipulated) individual freedom was again charted. But this time Curtis’s focus was the techniques of encouraging conformity in the era of the computer and internet. In what is often called the “information age”, where all knowledge is supposedly at our fingertips at the press of a PC key, our distance from our fellow human beings is actually heightened. The corporations running the internet constantly re-write algorithms to ensure that we are fed material, which our previous surfing of the ‘net has suggested we most want to see. In effect, we get to live in “bubbles”, seeing only that which will reinforce what we already think. The massive circulation of misinformation, and the collapse of older styles of journalism, are also parts of the problem. In this case, Curtis shows what impact this has had in the conduct of an aggressive (American and British) foreign policy in the Middle East, which in turn aroused a furious Islamicist backlash.

It is possible that in reading this, you may have formed the impression that Adam Curtis is some sort of conspiracy theorist. I do not think so. I believe his series are well-researched and well-reasoned. And while I am duly wary of any commentator making a political or sociological point, I would observe that real conspiracy theories flourish most on Facebook, Youtube [yes – I see the irony of encouraging you to watch things on Youtube], Twitter, and other social media. For what it’s worth, all Curtis’s series were the product of the BBC which, for all its recently tarnished reputation, is not conspiracy-theory feed.

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