Monday, 26 March 2007

The Trap: Whatever happened to our dreams of freedom? (Conclusion)

In three previous posts I have outlined the three episodes of Adam Curtis’s television series The Trap: Whatever happened to our dreams of freedom?, in which he argued that a narrow view of freedom and a distrust of public authorities had led us into a dead-end, a morally vacuous society prey to the positive promises of tyrants and demagogues. In this post I will comment on Curtis’s conclusion that what is needed is a new form of progressive politics, the revival of the positive liberty that Isaiah Berlin and Friedrich Hayek told us would lead to tyranny.

Curtis was not shy in his conclusions. Isaiah Berlin was wrong, he said. The problem was not merely that the negative liberty that he had espoused had been mutated into its own form of positive liberty. Rather, it was Berlin’s very notion of negative liberty that was at fault. Positive liberty offers us a hopeful vision of a brighter and better future – it is a means to an end – whereas negative liberty offers no hope at all; it is nothing more than an end in itself. The world it conjured up was one without purpose. This narrow and limiting vision was a dangerous trap, offering nothing to counter the reactionary forces that would seek to sweep liberty aside by offering order and equality in place of freedom. A world of negative freedom was not inevitable, however, and Curtis ended with a paean for a rediscovery of a progressive politics, because positive freedom does not have to lead to tyranny.

It is ironic, then, that so much of this last programme demonstrated exactly the opposite. The positive liberty of the French and Algerian revolutionaries, of Sartre and his acolyte Pol Pot, of the Ayatollahs and all those other inspired revolutionaries – yes, even of Tony Blair’s attempt to marry the two kinds of liberty – had always led to tyranny. In its mildest and most Fabian form, socialism in Britain led to Government officials dictating what individuals might earn and what businesses might charge, and as a result of its mildness it was more incompetent than brutal. Where positive liberty was carried to its logical conclusion, however, absolute poverty ensued – no matter how much relative poverty was alleviated – and dissenters went to the gallows or the gulags or just disappeared during the night.

Curtis refuses to see this because of his bias towards socialism, exposed by his claim that “the redistribution of land and wealth” were essential aspects of democracy. This is nonsense. Democracy may be a means to affect social change, but social change is not integral to democracy. It is integral to positive liberty, however, for it is the vision of a better world and the use of the levers of power – be they autocratic or democratic – to achieve that better world that is at the heart of positive liberty.

In fact, Curtis is wrong on a far more fundamental level. The ideal of negative liberty is neither narrow nor limiting, and certainly does not offer a bleak vision of the future. On the contrary, it is offers the broadest and most enabling future imaginable, for what it recognises is that within each of us is the possibility of creating a better world, and that any one of us may chance upon a profound truth. Rather than be bound to follow the agreed path to progress – be it inspired by Marx or Mohammed or Mammon – we are each able to pursue a better world in our own way. If history is really the march of progress, its greatest lesson is that progress never came from societies agreeing in advance where the future lay and slavishly driving themselves to that goal. Progress came from a million tiny revolutions, from new ideas tried and new concepts espoused, from individuals free from the binding constraints of orthodoxy – or willing to risk pain and death to break those bonds. That progress is not achieved through shepherding society towards a cause, but through freeing men and women to act upon their own initiative.

Isaiah Berlin called this "negative liberty" because freedom came from the absence of something – power and constraint. It suffers from nomenclature: the two types of liberty have semantic connotations. But in fact they are counterintuitive, for it is “negative liberty” that offers a more positive image of the future: one without coercion or conformism or crushing convention. It really does "Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend". But even if Curtis were right, and the best that negative liberty could offer was freedom as an end in itself, is that so terrible? By being free, thinking individuals, seeking our own truth and looking to how we can improve the world in our own way, we become better people, more aware of ourselves and of those around us than we ever need do as followers of another’s path. If in the process we enjoy “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, then so much the better. It may be negative liberty, but it is offers a more positive and more progressive image of the future than any other I have heard described.

Reviews of part 1, part 2 and part 3 are available separately.


Wonga Wallah said...

Perhaps the problem lies with the very labels "negative" and "positive" liberty, which each contain negative and positive connatations respectively.

Undoubtedly, freedom is abused and disrespected - the worst dictators were put in place by a populance not only apathetic to the potential outcome but longing for leadership with elements of a "Godhood" in it. Not so much following as worshipping.

It is this lack of cynicism in human nature leads us into the most awful situations, not cynicism itself.

Farhad said...

It seems that while you watched the program you failed to see the clear line of historical reference that Adam Curtis brought to this.

Negative liberty is something we possess in our societies today, explaining the apathy that exists within the public towards goverment. The distrust of goverment and how that distrust turns out to be true in wider geopolitical issues.

However this is at the expense of the social contract to the people that possess no liberty or it's forms in other areas. How one can give liberty to people by invading them fails to hold muster.

Adam Curtis wasn't attacking society, but the idea that freedom can be spread via force. This is factually true, the captains of our society are no longer politicians, it is the business elite and the corporate elite. That are not voted for or on.

I could go on and on, but I will stop because I don't understand it's like you watched these documentaries in a bubble outside of the world that is around you.

Tom Papworth said...

No, Farhad, I did not watch them in a bubble. I simply drew different conclusions from you.

Neither is it the case that "Adam Curtis wasn't attacking society, but the idea that freedom can be spread via force." The spread of freedom by force was just one small aspect of his far-broader analysis, and was practiced far more by the advocates of Positive Liberty than those of Negative Liberty.

Curtis's argument was that we should return to a definition of liberty based on a defined progressive outlook - a form of statist paternalism. I disagree, believing that to be an open door to tyranny.

Fortunately, in the world of Negative Liberty, we are free to disagree. Where Positive Liberty is practiced, that freedom does not exist.

Anonymous said...

Click HERE to watch all three episodes again.

George Burgess said...

I think you are far too kind to Curtis's argument. His conclusion that negative liberty had somehow failed and that some form of positive liberty should again be tried was almost perfectly opposed to the evidence he'd shown us over the previous hour.

As you say, where negative liberty has had the chance to grow from the bottom up (principally Europe and the US) it's produced successful stable societies. It's true that the attempted imposition of some aspects of negative liberty in Iraq and Russia have failed but all that shows is that top-down imposition of a social and political system is a bad idea - one of the very points that underlie Berlin's argument against positive freedom.

Having described some of the horrors of the failed trials of positive liberty, for Curtis finally to say that now is the time to try some (unspecified) version of the same thing was jaw-droppingly preposterous. He gave no reason whatsoever to expect any result save a new tyranny.

Nowadays critics attack Berlin's arguments by claiming that they were somehow essentially framed by Cold War politics and now no longer apply. This is akin to believing that the law of gravity is essentially a Jacobin rule which nowadays is waived.

Just as progress in science and mathematics in the late 17th century led Newton to an understanding which has (to a very good approximation) held good for more than 300 years, so the politics of the Cold War led Berlin to a profound truth. To act as though either is now wrong would lead to a very hard landing.

If Berlin made a mistake it was in giving the "good" form of liberty the negative name.

Roberto said...

Yeah... right.

I find your synopsis of the Curtis documentary straw-man-ish, that is to say self-serving.

Hayek identified the price mechanism for what it was: a locus of meaning. At one point, at one time two economic agents would crystallize a shared understanding (or meaning) about one 'object.' He argued that third party involvement would distort this process and was thus ill-advisable. You cannot argue with the logic thus far. It represents a beautiful monument to the power of abstract thought.

Let's bring in some reality now - the information processing power of the individual is not comparable to that of the firm or the state. To steal an overused cliche: the deck is unfairly stacked against the consumer (or citizen). But because of strength of the logic the model remains and its assumptions drive public policy.

Curtis identifies precisely this point and then asks what can be done about this?
Given that the government can be held to account for its actions and the firm cannot, Curtis takes the well-traveled road to progressive social reform. You seem to distort this 'goal' by suggesting that it represents a form of positive liberty and (following Berlin) doomed to lead into tyranny. To think in terms of positive and negative liberty is to have made assumptions about the human nature that are untenable (Curtis, being more diplomatic, refers to them as 'too narrow'). People are not capable of infinite information processing power that is required for the type of negative liberty pluralism you envision. What is more, people desire 'meaning' in life - that is what the pursuit of happiness is - the unfettered pursuit of interpretation. The distortion you have presented as a 'critique' is symptomatic of many self styled libertarians that confine themselves to literal interpretations of the work of Mill, Kant etc.

It would seem evident to anyone even remotely familiar with the predominant debates within social theory that this documentary is an attempt to identify the consequences of 'meaning' in society. Curtis has situated 'rational-economic man' as the prevailing ideal-type within modern society - by no means an original thesis and one that goes back to Weber. He has sought to explore the effects of this ideal-type on various social domains, particularly those of the state (bureaucracy) and political system.

If Curtis is to be criticized for anything it is the tedious and drawn-out nature of his message - one that could have been delivered, succinctly in one episode rather than three.

Frank said...

I expect to elaborate on Roberto's thoughts by responding to a phrase from Tom Papworth's opening...

"for it is “negative liberty” that offers a more positive image of the future: one without coercion or conformism or crushing convention"

While Curtis ends the series on a political note, much of the film has to do with human psychology and game theory. Parts 1 and 2 do a wonderful job at explaining how negative liberty reduces and devalues humanity into analogies of robots and numbers. There is indeed coercion and conformism in such a society as evident by the psychiatric screening tests and the pressure to define what is normal mental health and to medicate yourself to such an end.

You say a particular style of liberty can have a qualitative advantage over the other and it is Curtis's point that they are both failures and unfavorable. Subscribe to positive liberty and you lose your humanity by the acts of trying to save it, turning into the devils you once ousted. History has shows these top-down approaches fail but just because they crumble does not mean negative liberty has truly won. Negative liberty societies are void of meaning and strive towards what I can only see as simple, "narrow" pleasures. There's no vision and is that any way to have a society? At this point you'll bring up the free market, which is creating spiraling inequality and solidifying class structure and that will eventually lead to disorder (socio-economic and mental).

There is indeed a trap... Which is the whole point of the series. Curtis doesn't want us to qualify either form of liberty but simply acknowledge that with either form humanity loses and there must be another way forward.

Anonymous said...

Having just watched the three episodes back to back I broadly agree with Tom's critique, but would like to make a few points.

Curtis wants there to be a 'progressive', positive goal and meaning to life, one that is embodied in political and economic life. The key point for a liberal would be to deny the exogenous existance of such a goal. For a form of positive liberty to be dominant means that values are imposed from outside the individual, negative liberty allows everyone to define their own goals, and to characterise the goals of individuals as somehow shallow, subservient or purely self-interested is unfair.

The second critique Curtis presents, although obliquely, is of social stratification and economic inequality, for which John Nash, game theory and social choice theory are set up as a scape-goat in bizzare and worryingly propaganda like sequences in the first two programmes. This misunderstanding goes right to the heart of the distinction between positive and normative in economics. Economic models, and the models of mathematical biology derived by luminaries such as Maynard-Smith, are attempts at a phenomenological description, and need to be seen as approximations to reality with explanatory insights. What such theories do not do is proscribe what sort of society ought to be, what justice or fairness or right is; to use such theories in public policy invariably involves invoking ends outside the theories themselves, and the collapse of negative liberty into Blairite interventionism, and the tyranny of numbers implied in the title "The Trap".

Attacks on capitalism being used as a proxy for democracy are valid, and hark back to J.K. Galbraith, but this is a problem both capitalism and democracy have to face in the guise of manufactured want and manufactured consent respectively. Few deny the role for government in producing and sutaining law and order, but those powers set the rules by which the economic game is played, and inequlity would arguably best be talked by better understanding the complex nature of economic interactions, rather than by arbitrary and unpredictable interventions to enforce any (ironically narrow) concept of positive liberty!

I am apologise if that seems a bit of a rant, so I will finish with a favorite liberal quote...

"What the state can usefully do, is to make itself a central depository, and active circulator and diffuser, of the experience resulting from many trials. Its business is to enable each experimentalist to benefit by the experiments of others; instead of tolerating no experiments but its own." J.S. Mill (from On Liberty)

dannyzee said...

Although this was a thought provoking documentary, its analysis seemed simplistic and one-dimensional, and conflated many different ideas. To take one point - episode 1 completely misrepresented game theory and specifically the game 'prisoner's dilemma'. Curtis claims that prisoner's dilemma 'proves' that game theorists believed selfish behaviour was a person's only rational choice - in fact, as Wikipedia describes, the game has been used to show how altruistic behaviour can develop in societies. This misrepresentation undermined a lot of my trust in Curtis' argument. For someone whose career is based on attacking the spin of politicians, he seems pretty biased and partial himself.

Anonymous said...

Tom, you wrote in an earlier post that a "defined progressive outlook" equals "statist paternalism", which is quite a leap to make (just because Berlin said this doesn't mean we all have to agree). We see examples of positive liberty even in the most negatively liberal societies, such as the UK government's proposals for 'citizenship' classes in schools, or the USA's 'Pledge of Allegiance'. In both cases, young people are being coerced into conforming to a particular model of what a 'responsible citizen' is percieved to be in a liberal democracy. Do these instances not show that positive and negative liberty are not polar opposites but can in fact compliment one another in a single society?

Tom Papworth said...

Re. the previous comment, I do not think they show that. I think they demonstrate that neither the UK nor the US has managed to rid itself of powerful elites that wish to dictate to the citizenry how they should think and behave.

However, they may complement one another as long as “positive liberty” is an individual’s desire to be something, rather than a top-down way of life that uses the coercive power of the state to require individuals to behave in a manner that the powerful (even if that power is derived from the majority) sees as good for society – or worse still, good for them.

I despise "citizenship classes"; what was wrong with sociology, which allowed individuals to understand and discuss society without being told what conclusions to draw?

And as for the pledge of allegiance: it would not be out of place in North Korea!

c6ten said...

You pinpointed the very flaws I saw in Curtis argument about Isaiah Berlin. "Two Concepts of Liberty" is both a profound and difficult essay, and Curtis deliberately mispresented the roles of positive and negative liberty, as has been outlined above. As someone said Berlin's only mistake was to give such a negative label"negative" liberty ("freedom to..."). It underpins the United States Constitution and seems to have stood the test of time.

Curtis political bias is obvious from the tenor of his arguments. As you say redistribution of wealth is one of those programmes that have been tacked onto liberal democracy by later thinkers than the framers of the US Constitution. I deplore such attempts to rewrite the ground-rules as the European Constitution which offers such absurdities as a right to work (who exactly are you supposed to sue?) and the right to health (ditto-what doctor is going to work under duress?). These are positive liberties, red in tooth and claw, and should have no place in a foundational document. These are matters of consent and in extremis a threat to liberty.

Others have disparaged Curtis' points about Game Theory and Public Choice Theory, neither of which I am capable of commenting on. His thesis brings together an interesting pot-pourri of ideas, but the discussion is so inconsistent and self-contradictory that it may be described as 'flatulent'. There is an interesting book waiting to be written here, but maybe it would be better if it were written by somebody who has less of an ideological axe to grind and with a more rigorous intellect than Mr Curtis. And I did say 'book'. This series was an exposure to me of all the flaws of television as a medium for exposition of difficult subjects.

HANS said...

@dannyzee & the prisoner's dillemma:
you say that "the game has been used to show how altruistic behaviour can develop". that is correct.

but your dismissal of curtis' criticism, shows that you've accepted game theory already.

you should realise that the game theory account of altruism is by no means the only one, and one of the least convincing. this is exactly because it is based on game theory, a very "narrow" vision of human psychology.

to put it simply:

you can account for seemingly altruistic behaviour in a situation, even if all the participants in the situation act entirely selfish, but this does not prove that it really works that way in real situations.

Anonymous said...

I'm absolutely astounded that so many seem to have taken Curtis's critique of negative liberty as though it were a call for a return to positive liberty, despite it running alongside a damning critique of the same. Knee-jerk stuff, fellas. If I remember correctly there was one cautious, solitary line at the end of the programme that suggested that not all altruistic intentions lead to tyranny. After watching Curtis make a lot of the right connections, and missing a lot of others, I thought that perhaps that line was just the seed of an alternative idea, which in the absence of a real alternative is about the best you can hope for a three hour documentary made at this point in history on the mistakes of the past to deliver.

What I took from the documentary was confirmation of the only absolute truth where human beings are concerned: That where human beings are concerned, there is no absolute truth. Where we can go from here has to take that into account.

Anonymous said...

"I deplore such attempts to rewrite the ground-rules as the European Constitution which offers such absurdities as a right to work (who exactly are you supposed to sue?) and the right to health (ditto-what doctor is going to work under duress?). These are positive liberties, red in tooth and claw, and should have no place in a foundational document. These are matters of consent and in extremis a threat to liberty."

Hahaha. Amusing, and it sounds like the views of someone who never had to worry about finding gainful employment, or about getting health care while, say, down on his luck.

You're an example of the very dynamic Curtis mentions, where people have forgotten that governments could provide services to their citizens, and not go broke doing it, and weren't purely out to screw the citizenry.

One would do well to look at the example of Tommy Douglas and the CCF in Saskatchewan, which was celebrated by the people whom it brought into the 20th century. The Canadian government's dismantling it all, now, just as John Ralston Saul warned us they would, in an attempt to be more like America... except of course it's only working in the bad ways.

Tom Papworth said...

I think that last comment does C6ten a disservice. Whether government is able to and/or should provide social services is not the point. These are issues of policy and should be dealt with through normal political channels: by legislation and administration.

The attempt to write these issues into a national constitution would be nothing more than enshrining the views of today's policy-makers in a format that would be difficult for future policy-makers to ammend.

The attempt to write these into a supranational constitution is a disgraceful attempt to avoid democratic politics and force national legislatures to harmonise their social welfare systems. This is entirely unnecessary and represents an attempt by socialist politicans to circumscribe their own political systems.

I can't speak for C6ten, but I have been out of work several times, sometimes for extended periods. That does not make me sympathetic to actions that are illiberal, unconstitutional or undemocratic.

The AvengingAngel777 said...

Dear Tom,
I came across your blog & comments on The Adam Curtis Documentary The Trap. It is interesting to read your views and the views of the people who responded.

The bottom line is simple:
We each have a right to express our individual points of view on a subect; as complex as negative and positive FREEDOM. The effects and examples of how it may have been used in the past and present to manipulate the masses and how that process continues to be used today in Britain. That is what freedom of speech is all about and that is part of the democratic process {Agreed}.

It's what we are going to do about it in the future that counts.

Given our historical education system, and the fact most of the voting public did not do a degree in the subject matter.

Combined the current political landscape, present education system and methods of informing the public. Which does nothing to improve our ability to address or allow a more qualified, meaningful understanding of the topic and possible alternatives.

We should agree to close this subject and move on to factual situations, as Government is failing,lying or both. For I might add it's own self determination.

Moving on rather than attack your attempt to Leverage the content of the programe or distort the intent of for your own selfish aims or those of your party. Let me Leverage/Distort your blog and ask 2 simple questions.

1). Why is that when we come to choose a political party we get clinically scripted 8 min broadcasts from all parties asking us make an informed decisions about who is fit to govern our country.

When a documentray such as the Trap can devote several hours to one subject with compelling factual evidence.

2) When 1+ million people for the first time in British hitory physically challenge the Blair government on the issue of Road charging. They are fobbed off with a three page diatribe which was living proof of Nash's game theory,The prisoners dilema {Fuck You Buddy} = Betrayal

What is the view both of you personally and those of your party on these 2 topics?

NB: Nash's {Betrayal} is why the public is ready for change in the way we will do goverment in the future.
Best Regards


Tom Papworth said...


I'm not sure I agree that we can "agree to close this subject and move on to factual situations", as the more philosophical side of things intrinsically shape our policies, but I agree that we must also focus on practical policies that will improve people's lives and free them from overbearing state control.

In answer to your specific questions:

1) Money. Adam Curtis probably had more to spend on each episode than the Lib Dems receive in contributions in a whole year. He also probably gets paid more than our press office staff.

You are right to describe PPBs as "clinically scripted 8 min broadcasts" but you forgot to mention cringeworthy and patronising. I have never, NEVER seen one by any party that was genuinely good TV.

Of course, partly this is because it would take three hours of TV to really convey what a party thought about the various key issues and their underlying philosophy, but you know as well as I do that the vast majority would switch off after three minutes and we'd have wasted what money we have.

There is also the fact that we would have to buy airtime, I think, whereas Curtis gets his assigned to him as a BBC exec.

My best advice is read our policy papers. Some of the recent ones are really very good.

2) The issue of the petitions page on the No. 10 site is actually very difficult. The fact is that a Government is elected by millions of people - though never a majority of the population - and acts on THAT mandate.

One can find a million people who disagree with ANY policy. If Government can be paralysed by what is actually less than 2% of the British population, we end up wtih no policy at all.

I have written on this blog that I think the petitions page is a mistake. If you want to stop a policy, vote out the Government. A million marched against the Iraq War and two years later Labour won the election!

Anonymous said...

I think the analysis of Curtis's conclusions offered on this blog is shortsighted, self-interested (oh, the irony) and disingenuous.

There can be no doubt that negative liberty works very well for some people, and they are precisely the people who will defend it. But look at the people who "lost", or outright don't understand, the complex transactional game they are meant to be playing.

Nearly a quarter of the British population now lives below the poverty line. That's more than the populations of Sweden and Ireland combined. Is that a triumph for negative liberty? Yes, in that it has to have winners and losers.

In the UK there is a epidemic of depression the like of which has never been seen. Is this good? Well, yes, it is because it means there are more "customers" for anti-depressant drugs to alter their behaviour and become "well-adjusted" members of society [tardy irony flag].

I could cite other symptoms of something profoundly wrong, but ultimately, it doesn't matter what I say, because the self-interest of those doing very nicely out of the system (thank you very much) will filter out any attempt they make to think about criticising it meaningfully.

Recall that, the next time you pretend you haven't seen a street-dweller - or feel a strange unidentifiable "yawning" feeling after the initial excitement of making a new purchase wears off.

A system that predefines human beings as economic units, with a societal value equal to their transactional value, leaves human beings with an emptiness they cannot express.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and this human emptiness will cause negative liberty to implode under the weight of its own artifice one day - and that day is probably not very far in the future.

Anonymous said...

While it is true that all historical attempts of imposing Positive Liberty have failed, In my opinion negative liberty has also stolen personal freedom and transformed it into an illusion. You are free to do what you want to do, but it is what you want to do that is being manipulated and imposed on you, through mass media bombardement and peer pressure that enforces conformity. That is what I enjoyed in this series. The normalization of everything, "just look at the numbers"