Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Waves of Beautiful Nonsense

I recently had an exchange with someone about Adam Curtis, in which I said that it seemed to me that he doesn't think clearly and his ideas cannot be crystallised into anything, and I was informed that this was wrong and his ideas are crystallised, it's just that he argues in 'a non-linear fashion'. What is arguing in a non-linear fashion, I wondered - something very much like this, I suspect.

Anyway, after this exchange, I decided to watch one of Curtis's recent programmes, to get to grips with his non-linear but crystal clear propositions. The programme I chose was the first in the series titled, 'All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace'. It was called 'Love and Power', and this was the blurb about it:

"This is the story of the dream that rose up in the 1990s that computers could create a new kind of stable world. They would bring about a new kind global capitalism free of all risk and without the boom and bust of the past. They would also abolish political power and create a new kind of democracy through the Internet where millions of individuals would be connected as nodes in cybernetic systems – without hierarchy."

The programme began with a message printed in capitals, over images of a man in an early computer lab; a man in red satin academic robes, holding up a handwritten card with an internet address on it; an image of a young woman, who might possibly be Hilary Clinton; and on and on. The printed message on the screen repeats in part the blurb above. This is what it says:


It is followed by this:


Emerging from beneath this caption we see the peculiar image of Ayn Rand appear on the screen.

It turns out that Ayn Rand, who preached a kind of every-man-for-himself philosophy that Curtis tells us is called objectivism, was much admired by many in Silicon Valley. This Curtis proves by wheeling out for interview a couple of people who apparently were internet entrepreneurs of some kind. They admit that they've given their kids middle names inspired by Rand.

We are then told that objectivism led to something called the Californian ideology and an international priesthood attached to this grew up. This is illustrated by tiny clips, probably taken out of context, showing Alvin Toffler and various other people I've never heard of (Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, Peter Schwartz).

The idea behind this ideology was, supposedly, that government should no longer regulate. Bill Clinton didn't agree with this but, according to some old codger who Curtis interviews, Greenspan, when young, was persuaded to move from a belief in 'logical positivism' to Rand's view of the world, after being introduced to the Rand collective by Nathan Branden, where Greenspan read Rand's novel 'Atlas Shrugged'. With this in mind, the newly Randian Greenspan told Clinton that the deficit he'd inherited was too large for Clinton's promised social reform and persuaded him to cut government spending and let markets do the job.

While this tale is being told, we are shown pictures of Clinton looking thoughtful, of city streets, of offices with huge computers and of frantic stockmarket floor traders. We are told that computers equal maths which equal complex financial instruments, and so something called the New Economy emerges. Meanwhile, Clinton picks his teeth, Greenspan looks creepy, industrial plant drifts on and off the screen.

Then, in 1996,  Greenspan warns of irrational exuberance and another bubble. He changes his mind, however, and tells Clinton that the effect on the economy of computers is going to be like discovering a new planet. While this is going on, Clinton plays happily with a cat and Rand pops up, looking particularly batty, her eyes darting all over the place.

Time magazine asserts that lethargy descended on the White House during the cat playing days. At this point, slow motion shots of Monica Lewinsky looking at Bill Clinton are reeled out while the Asian Economic miracle is explained away as a result of  US bullying of Asian governments to let the US invest in their markets. Joseph Stieglitz is given the rare privilege of being allowed to air his views on this subject without any random images of smokestacks or presidential cats or stock market traders to distract the viewer. He claims that Rubin, the former Goldman Sachs man who became Secretary of the Treasury, would not let him or his theories near the president.

Computer networks, Curtis informs us next, in sombre tones, hadn't distributed power but rather had merely shifted and concentrated it. The web rather than being a new democracy is merely a way of exercising power over individuals in new ways. Going online is a kind of commodification of self in which users sell themselves as entertainment (ooh, look, I'm doing that now, except that I'm getting no money, and I'm entertaining myself rather than waiting, passively, for someone else to entertain me, but perhaps that's an argument for another day). Everything is transformed into spectacle by the new order. All the while more pictures of Lewinsky - and of her friend Linda Tripp -  are unfurled before us.

And, gosh, while all this commodification and spectaculisation is going on in the West,  in Asia the property bubble bursts. Thus, the supposed dream of the stable world is assaulted by love (Lewinsky) and power (the bursting bubble [?]). The IMF is wheeled in to deal with the power side of the equation, but it tells the Asians they need to be more Western and less corrupt.

In Indonesia, noble Suharto refuses to bow to this appallingly mono-cultural attack (presumably not because he wants to protect his own corrupt interests, perish the thought). The IMF turns to Rubin who argues that corruption is no good in Indonesia. Disgustingly, as Curtis explains, 'Treasury was determined to force Suharto to their will'. Appallingly, they succeed. Rubin claims Suharto had threatened the global economy, but in fact Indonesia and all the other IMF bailouts collapse, so he must have been wrong, mustn't he?

As Curtis tells it, the IMF really paid off only the Western investors in the Asian countries and then told them to get out, knowing the Asian economies would crash - he doesn't produce evidence for this claim and he doesn't mention the possibility that the internal corruption of the Asian countries in question might possibly have made any contribution to the crisis at all. The huge unemployment in Asian cities that ensues is the fault of the West, Curtis implies, giving us that fine and admirable statesman, Mahattir Mohamed of Malaysia, to express this view in full and frank terms.

And the bad deeds of the West are clearly tied up intimately with Rand - otherwise why would Curtis return to her at this point, teasing out the details of her rather complicated and unhappy personal affairs, which don't, on the face of it, appear to have much bearing on anything, even if you do buy into the theory that she was hugely influential on Greenspan and thus the modern world?

Or am I being too linear in my thinking? Is the tale of Rand and the mess she made of her life just something to fill the screen until we can get on to 9/11, which Curtis characterises as an attack on radical individualism, segueing from there to Enron, throwing in Greenspan en route, as he cuts interest rates, in his wicked plan to use consumers as machines to bolster the economy by borrowing and spending, which, sadly, creates inflation and instability instead.

Hang on though - everything is saved by the Asian countries, particularly China, who, deciding never to be at the mercy of the US again, deliberately keep their exchange rate low and buy government bonds, thus lending to poor people who are like an internal developing country within the United States. All seems to be well, the dream may yet become a reality, except that then, just as the US through the IMF had done to the Asian economies, China calls in the money. Wrapping everything up, we understand at last that, although everyone had thought everything would be okay because unnamed people believed computers would make everything okay, it turned out they were wrong. The end.

Had there been a shred of proper evidence offered to connect Ayn Rand to anything that went on in Silicon Valley, beyond a couple of semi nonentities saying they liked her and had chosen names influenced by her (I have a daughter called Anna and I like Anna Karenina but it doesn't mean I am an adherent of Tolstoy's loopier ideas), had the Rand-Greenspan connection been properly established rather than merely insinuated strongly without actual proof, had the whole China thing been convincing (how exactly is China getting revenge when its entire economy is hideously bound up with the US, so that, if the US collapses, China loses vast amounts of money?), this non-linear load of mashed up images and wild assertions might have had some value, rather than being patent nonsense.

Not that it matters to most of Curtis's audience. This nonsense understands perfectly the seductive power of images. It doesn't matter that during his artfully compiled hour-long parade of retro-postcards, Curtis does not offer a single solid fact. It does not matter either that his very premise is nonsense - who did actually articulate this supposed dream of a stable world through machines; who ever suggested that this was going to come to pass? Through the skilful use of pictures Curtis captures his viewers' imaginations (and, in this case, it is no coincidence at all that' imagination' and 'image' share the same root - that connection is something he understands better than almost anybody else).

Curtis's film, in fact, is not merely non-linear; it is practically non-verbal. It works not at a reasonable but at an almost subliminal level, which to my mind is not playing fair. As the stream of glimpsed scenes washes over viewers, a succession of fleetingly evoked emotions is stirred within them. Meaning is replaced by wisps of gossip and half-baked notions, truth and reason are replaced by vapour . In that sense then, it is non-linear; it is non-linear like smoke


  1. Spot on ZMKC. Curtis is the conspiracist's documentary maker.

  2. He produces propaganda. Here's my take on it. I have to say I can't help finding it quite enjoyable to kick this sort of thing around.


  3. Thanks, Recusant. Sorry I missed that, Gaw - in a much more informed way, you appear to have reached similar conclusions (great minds et cetera et cetera)

  4. I should point out, since some people have contacted me, objecting to anyone passing judgment on the basis of one hour of the master's oeuvre, that I have seen other Adam Curtis programmes, not just this one, and I think many of them are even worse than the one I've written about. The Power of Nightmares, for example, has just been held up to me by someone as 'a cavalcade of facts', which I think is an overstatement to say the least - and what I really, really, really object to immensely strongly about that series is the implication that Kissinger and Nixon were nobly trying to get on with that nice Soviet Union and those bastard Straussian neo-cons wrecked everything and stopped the creation of a lovely and loving new world order with the US and the Soviet bloc holding hands. Tell that to anyone who remembers living behind the Iron Curtain. The problem is few people really understand just how horrible the Soviet Union was. While there is a lot to be disgusted by in the modern Western world, I believe it is a mistake to believe an alternative utopia does, did or could exist - whether Curtis does believe this I'm not certain; in whipping up spurious outrage, what is his purpose?

  5. Z, who on earth are these 'some people' with their 'objecting'? They should be named and shamed.

  6. Ah, the bravery of the Welsh - I'm not having them coming round to my place, banging my door down and attacking me with old copies of Trotsky's complete works (for Curtis's work does remind me in its beguiling incoherence of getting stuck with a Trot in full flight).