Monday, 26 March 2007

The Trap: Whatever happened to our dreams of freedom? (Part 3)

Last night saw the third and final episode of Adam Curtis’s television series, The Trap: Whatever happened to our dreams of freedom?.

As I outlined in my reviews of the first and second episodes, this series has argued that the past thirty years has been dominated by a narrow and depressing view of freedom based on an assumption that cold rationality and a distrust of political leadership. Mr. Curtis has sought to undermine this concept. However, in doing so he has demonstrated his own failure to understand both the nature of freedom and the gulf between what has been delivered by political leaders and what individuals cry out for.

In this third post I will outline the programme for those who did not see it. I will address his conclusions in a final post, and there I will argue that he is wrong not only in his analysis but also in his fundamental call for a new type of freedom. In my writing, below, I will limit my comments (in the last and third from last paragraphs) to Curtis’s description of the experiences in Russia and in Iraq. Here Curtis was deliberately disingenuous, attempting to conjure a biased picture and so make it appear that the concept of liberty he opposes is to blame for the problems those countries experienced.

In the final episode, entitled We will force you to be free, Curtis abandoned his focus on psychology and Public Choice Theory, turning instead to the philosophical underpinnings of liberalism in the twentieth century. The leading exponent of liberty was the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In his essay Two Concepts of Liberty he presented two different images of freedom, which he called “Negative” and “Positive” liberty. Both were born of the French Revolution, but where the former sought freedom from constraint, the latter sought to make the world a better place. Put crudely, these have been described as “freedom to” and “freedom from”: the freedom to act as one sees fit (as long as it does not curtail the freedom of others, as Mill and others stressed), or the freedom from want that came from a progressive society.

Berlin believed that negative liberty was a great prize, freeing us from coercion by others and tyranny by governments. Positive liberty, on the other hand, was a dangerous form of absolutism, for if there was only one ideal future, only one truth, then anything was justified to achieve that goal. “I object to paternalism,” Berlin explained, “to being told what to do.” His great fear was the tyranny of the Communist regimes that were at the time dominating Eastern Europe, but as his example he took the positive liberty preached by the Jacobins of the French Revolution: that the people were too stupid to appreciate freedom, so the state must “force them to be free”, using terror to force the changes necessary to make a better society. Negative liberty would protect us from this progressive tyranny. But Berlin also cautioned that the belief in negative liberty must never itself become an absolute destiny, for if it did it would morph into a form of positive liberty, with anything justified to achieve that end.

Having set out the philosophical battlefield, Curtis began to populate it. Positive liberty was very popular in the middle of the twentieth century. Jean-Paul Sartre suggested that freedom was shackled by society, and individuals had to break those shackles to be free. His views influenced Algerian revolutionaries who argued that the West controlled not by force of arms but of ideas, and that catharsis could be achieved by the cleansing fire of violence. Sartre also influenced Steve Biko, Che Guevara and Pol Pot. The views of these men fed back to Sartre, who advocated revolution to free society. This reached its apotheosis in the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia, where revolutionaries sought to sweep aside the shackles that bound society by liquidating the entire middle class, even inviting the Cambodian Diaspora back to help rebuild society, only to butcher them on the runways as they stepped off the planes.

The US reaction to the spread of revolutionary fervour was to promote reactionary forces; the “Realpolitik” of Henry Kissinger. But the support of dictators such as Pinochet and Marcos disgusted others in America – later known as the Neoconservatives – who felt that America should be promoting its values abroad rather than supping with the devil. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, his Secretary of State told congress that there “are things worth fighting for”, and the administration introduced Project Democracy, a plan to promote democracy abroad using four key tools:

  • Public support for democratic politics (including dropping the old, discredited allies)
  • Promoting democracy abroad – but only in its electoral form, and not what Curtis referred to as the “other aspects of democracy: the redistribution of land and wealth”
  • Undermining communist governments abroad (e.g. in Nicaragua)
  • The creation of an Office of Public Diplomacy to spread propaganda to the American public.

The result were two scandals: one contemporary and one held over for the future. The contemporary scandal was the Iran-Contra Affair. The scandal for the future was the precedent that was set for spinning intelligence to justify wars for which there was no clear and present danger. The problem, noted Curtis (though he later seemed to conveniently forget it) was that the Neocons had reified Berlin’s fear: they were advocating forms of negative liberty in a positivist way: they would force us to be free.

Nobody noticed, however, because in 1989 Communism collapsed and history ended. Liberal democracy had triumphed. Curtis chose to dwell on the results in Russia, where President Yeltsin followed Jeffrey Sachs advice and adopted a big bang approach to liberalising the economy, destroying elite institutions and freeing the people. To Curtis this was a disaster: prices shot up as soon as price controls were removed; people were issued with vouchers with which to buy stakes in privatising utilities, but they sold them for cash to the future Oligarchs who then snapped up the utilities for a windfall profit; objections in the Duma led Yeltsin to send in troops; finally there was a run on the banks and Russia defaulted on its debt. The results, argued Curtis, was that Russians turned their backs on the anarchy that had ensued and sought sanctuary in order. They willingly gave their freedoms away to President Putin, a reactionary autocrat who promised stability at the expense of liberty.

There is always a point in Curtis’s films where his bias is exposed. In this episode it was the Russian experience. His presentation of the Russian financial crisis crudely exploited time compression, disguising the five years that elapsed between the liberalisation and the financial difficulties. Nor did he mention the low price of commodities (on which Russia was dependent) in the late 1990s, or how much money would later flow into Russia as commodity prices rose. He ignored the knock-on effects from the Asian financial crisis, to which Russia was a sequel. And he said nothing of the Chechen War, surely a more effective tool in Putin’s armoury than the economy. Lastly, Curtis ignored the very different experience in much of Eastern Europe, where liberalisation has led to massive rises in living standards and where greater freedom has been welcomed. This analysis exposes Mr. Curtis as a partial and biased analyst. It does him no credit.

In the final part, Curtis suggested that Tony Blair was quite taken with the principles of negative liberty, but lamented the loss of idealism that positive liberty conveyed. He wrote to Isaiah Berlin and asked whether it might be possible to synthesise the two, though the dying Berlin never replied. Blair went on to argue that it was the destiny of the West to spread liberty. Curtis argues that this was negative liberty as evangelism, but others might argue that it was not negative liberty at all. Blair was also aware that Public Choice Theory had undermined faith in politicians, so the only way to carry the people was – argued Curtis – to lie to them. Evidence for the Iraq war was spun, and Iraq was given a Russian-style dose of liberalising shock-therapy: everything was privatised and the Baath administrators were sacked.

The Iraq experience also encouraged distortion and bias from Curtis. He argued that the de-Baathification resulted from a liberal distrust of public officials. Not a word was said of the intellectual antecedent of this idea, the de-Nazification of Germany, or the fact that the vast majority of the Iraqi people were demanding the removal of their Baath tormentors. Even more unbelievably, Curtis claimed that it was the economic consequences of liberalisation and the lack of positive liberty at the heart of Iraqi democracy that triggered the insurgency, not a combination of Sunni ex-Baath rejectionists and Al Qaeda-inspired fanatics, as every other commentator and expert has agreed. It was fabrication on a grand scale.

He was right in one area, though. The emergence of Islamic terrorism in Western cities has been used – by both Blair and President Bush, among others – to justify massive extensions of state power in an attempt to pre-empt crime and terrorism. This has gone beyond terror, however, to seek pre-emptive powers to control possible criminal and even anti-social behaviour. The result is a return to the arbitrary power of the state and the end of the very civil liberties that the West is claiming to protect. It is a bitter irony.

I have separately reviewed part 2 and part 3. Curtis's conclusion and my analysis of it are discussed in a final post.


Wonga Wallah said...

Adam Curtis's third documentary certainly seemed to contain some admiration for the concepts behind "positive liberalism", and decries "negative liberalism" for its soulessness & selfishness.

Surely this itself is biased - is government intervention necessarily required to bring about the the circumstances for altruism to exist? If altruism is in fact selfish satisfaction for an individual's need to feel good about themselves, then no. One might argue that the current obsession with target setting mitigates against this by distorting people's existing but increasingly buried ability to do "what is right" rather than "what is required".

Edis said...

The Russian 'shock therapy' was a massive bosh, throwing resources to organised crime. It didnt have to be that way - but markets require disciplined oversight which they did get in some other post-Soviet jurisdictions.

George Burgess said...

Just a small suggested amendment to your fourth para. There's ambiguity in your descriptions of negative and positive freedoms. "Negative" is freedom from [undue constraint] while "Positive" is freedom to [achieve one's true humanity or some such].

Iqbal Khaldun said...

Just a brief comment on the Iraq portion of your post. It's true the Iraqis wanted to remove their Baathists tormentors, but it is also true that in removing everyone who was a member of the Baath party (except notably several of the key Baathist security operatives who since been implicated in a number of atrocities) the Americans removed a lot of good people who would have been necessary to maintain some semblance of order in Iraq. I'm glad you mentioned the de-Nazification of Germany because even in Germany most Nazi Party members were never prosecuted and many remained in the post War administration. Indeed, some even became key advisers to the Allies, including some of the less savory members of the Nazi machinery.

Under Saddam anyone who wanted to be involved in the public administration (doctors, lawyers, enginers, civil servants, etc) had to be Baath members. In removing all Baathists the Americans also removed a lot of good people who had no choice but to wear a certain label. Many if not most of these people understandably left Iraq afterwards.

As for the insurgency being a collection of "Sunni ex-Baath rejectionists and Al-Qaeda inspired fanatics". Well I don't know which "commentators and experts" you've been paying attention to, perhaps the ones that advise Washington and London. But this is another massive simplification on your part which actually misrepresents the insurgency. In fact even the term insurgency is misleading for it implies that the resistence in Iraq is a collection of movements seeking to break away from the main stream of power. Most Iraqis are either implicitly or explicitly supportive of the insurgency. For example, hundreds of recruits to the American-trained Iraqi army and police forces disappear soon after their training only to reappear as 'insurgents' encountered by the Americans down the barrel of a gun. The insurgency itself isn't just made up of Sunnis or Baathists, and Al Qaeda inspired fanatics (which perhaps is your racist term for describing any Iraqi with a beard and a rifle) are actually a fairly small third force. A much larger force which you were perhaps alluding to is the Shia armies such as Al Sadr's Mehdi Army. But such forces are fundamentally 'protectionist' in their dimensions. By which I mean their resistence is very much tied to religious and tribal domains rather than a pornographic lust for wanton destruction. For example there isn't a Mehdi Army presence in the Kurdish regions in the North and these militias have often brokered ceasefires with other groups and have even attempted such ceasefires with the Americans.

Lastly, and this is an important point to raise, is the growing evidence that suggests that the US itself is behind much of the 'civil war' in Iraq, for eg the deliberate targetting of Iraqi civilians in terrorist strikes on crowded places. See If this is true it would not be the first time either the US or an imperial power per se has resorted to terrorism. In fact, almost all modern terrorist groups originate from some Nation State patron.

About the Curtis documentary, one general criticism I had was that it uncritically accepted the stated aims of the different decision makers he mentions. So for example, he assumes that the Neocons really do want to spread democracy to the world. Could it not be simply a case of the standard power hungry narrative couched in the more digestable clothing of freedom and liberty so as to gain authority and public support? That was a rhetorical question.

Tom Papworth said...


To clarify, I did not say that the insurgency still comprised solely of "Sunni ex-Baath rejectionists and Al Qaeda-inspired fanaticsf". However, that was how it started out.

It has since grown and changed as the coalition has failed to provide security: the Al Qaeda element has deliberately murdered thousands of innocent civilians to panic the general population and encourage them to create the "fundamentally 'protectionist'" forces you mention.

This is a more effective way of undermining the occupation than attacking coalition forces directly, though it does involve using the citizens of Iraq as weapons.

So no, Al Qaeda is not by "racist term for describing any Iraqi with a beard and a rifle". It is a term for those (often, though not exclusively, foreign) fighters overtly claiming authority from Al Qaeda and murdering far more Iraqis than they are Americans.

The suggestion that "the US itself is behind much of the 'civil war' in Iraq, for eg the deliberate targetting of Iraqi civilians" is just a sad inability to admit that it is Muslims that are killing Muslims in Iraq.

The first step to ending the horror is to recognise it for what it is.

Mollerade said...

I have come away from this three part series with several thoughts, including;
1) There is no good and evil, no bad or good people. Everyone is capable of good and bad in equal measures.
2) No human being is immune to the possibility that his or her opinions are wrong.
3) To overcome disagreement we must listen to those who disagree with us. We must not silence them, even if it is in our power to do so.

Iqbal Khaldun said...

Oddly enough I am a Muslim who accepts that Muslims do kill Muslims, even in Iraq. Actually it is something that I've been speaking about for some time. Shocking, I know...

There's an irony to your statement though because you talk (correctly) about Muslims killing other Muslims, and I totally agree a lot of Muslims live in denail about this, but to you it is unfathomable that Americans could deliberately be involved in terrorism against Iraqi civilians. With respect, this is the ultimate arrogance of Western commentators like you. As though you are the impartial voices with the capacity to speak truth about 'these ethnic conflicts' the rest of the planet gets itself into.

American involvement in attacks against civilians are allegations of course, but they are serious, and far from just a few rumours here and there, so they merit serious attention. And it would not be the first time the US (My Lai) or its proxies (the Contras in Nicaragua) have deliberately murdered civilians.

Lastly, it is not true that the insurgency only "started out" with the Baathists and Al Qaeda militants. In fact there was no real Al Qaeda presence at the beginning of the war. To suggest but one other source. Saddam released all prisoners just before the American invasion, basically to cause havoc on the soon-to-be occupiers. Amongst these people were hardened criminals yes, but also political prisoners, including remnants of the people who rose up against Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War but who were brutally suppressed. People like Sadr were around in those early days too, and in fact one of the key battles of the early days was over Fallujah which was a stronghold for local tribal groups (not Sadr's but Sunni ones).

Sorry to labour these points but I think they are important. I would suggest checking out news from somehwere like this Also I don't like the way you criticise Curtis for his reductionism but then commit the same mistake yourself.

Re the documentary I think it showed that society is still shaped by elites and intellectuals who play the rest of us like pieces on a chess board. Also, even if Curtis's analysis is a bit wanting at times, one thing he does well is show the power of ideas. Who would've thought being an 'idealist' could be so dangerous?

Richard said...

Your summary of the Russian Sachs massive and immoral ivory tower experiment is a whitewash. That was the United States hubris looking to other nations as an experimental model for their psychotic economic fantasies. Same with Iraq...just read George Packer on the Green utter disgrace. Paul Bremer should be tried in an international criminal court for what he did in Iraq. You ivory tower liberals make me sick.

Alexander said...

You reading of Curtis is for the most part misread. LOL.

In truth, Curtis is not advocating positive liberty but the combination of both the positive and the negative; what Blair ultimately wanted.

Immanuel Kant put it quite simply; that individuals should be free to do as they like but at the same time, society should offer a moral vision and purposeful meaning to peoples lives; people should be encouraged rather than coerced in his republic to be 'patriotic'.

In a sense, both Kant and Curtis argue for a balance between the two; a balance set by democratic society.