Here are the three episodes of the latest series by documentarian Adam Curtis, in full wholes and not in tedious 10 minute chapters, along with the articles I wrote on each episode and the series in recent weeks. I strongly recommend the work of Adam Curtis, whether it be his documentaries, his blog or his articles in the press. The commentary he has to offer is related to the areas of his focus back in Oxford, specifically: genetics, evolutionary biology, psychology, politics, sociology and elementary statistics. In his latest series of films he looks at the way we have come to believe that the old hierarchies of power can be supplanted with self-organised networks from the internet to the global economy. Today we dream of systems which can balance and stabilise themselves without the intervention of authoritarian power. In reality this is the fantasy of the machines, it is not indicative of nature and it is an insufficient means of changing the world for the good.
Adam Curtis has offered a consistently fascinating and intelligent alternative to the realm of acceptable commentary in the mass-media. With the standard BBC accent Curtis comes across as just another Oxbridge liberal and, in all fairness, Curtis studied and worked at Oxford before he went to work in television which means he was born into a bourgeois background. But it is not the case that Curtis is a part of the Establishment and has been routinely attacked by the commentariat for his more controversial documentaries. In Pandora's Box he explores the dangers of the use of technocratic and supposedly rational theories in politics to run society, whether it be the social engineering of Bolshevik Russia or economic science in Britain. The acceptable commentary on monetarism in Britain is that it has been a successful way of controlling inflation and Curtis challenged this and pointed out that the money supply was actually on the rise by the time inflation was brought down to less than 3% in the 1980s.
In the conclusion of The Trap Adam Curtis calls for the reformulation of positive liberty in order to pursue radical change, which will not necessarily lead to tyranny and oppression as Isaiah Berlin argued. Before that in The Century of the Self Curtis argued that the average citizen has become a slave to their own desires, just as politicians have as well, in doing so we have forgotten that we can be more than that and that there are other sides to human nature. In The Power of Nightmares he concludes that the politics of fear will not last forever and leave the political class where it was left to concede that it has no ideas to offer the masses. For him the "War on Terror" is a grand narrative which was used to make sense of the world, it served the interests of politicians, journalists and terrorists in this way. The view of terrorism Adam Curtis put forward in The Power of Nightmares was criticised on the false grounds that he "implied" that al-Qaeda did not exist. It is clear that these are not the projects of just another Oxbridge liberal.
As a commentator Curtis is primarily concerned with the way ideas can effect the world, which would distinguish him from classical Marxists who would stress the role of the economic system in relation to ideas and the way the world is run. He is concerned with the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few. The latest series of films challenges the ideas of the Left which originate in the counter-culture of the 60s. Since then have been fused with the ideas of the libertarian Right, so to eliminate race, gender and class in a radically individualistic conception of the world. For him there is a dire need for leadership and inspirational visions of a better world on the Left, to challenge power we need to go beyond self-organised networks of individuals. There is a lack of a grand alternative to capitalism right now, there are plenty of alternatives which are not articulated well and are left to stew in academic circles for a long time.
The thesis is reminiscent of the Žižekian call for serious collective acts, as well as an examination of old ideas like communism, critique of ideology and the reactualisation of Lenin. We should not be so fearful of power, but rather be willing to use power. Slavoj Žižek would also emphasise that there are times when we can and should just sit still. He has also suggested that the contemporary Left should "begin from the beginning over and over again." In other words, we should not attempt build further on the revolutionary epoch of the 20th Century and descend to the point at which we started and rethink what we are doing. After doing so we can once again attempt to ascend the High Mountain, to borrow a simile used by VI Lenin. Even after the disaster of the 20th Century we should reorganise and make another serious attempt at radical change, just as Samuel Beckett once wrote "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."