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.