Adam Curtis

We live in a time when all elites, whether on the left or the right, believe in rigid rules that say there is no alternative to the present political and economic system.

The latest rule is: you cannot have protectionism - otherwise you will get a world war. Other rules say you cannot have collective ideas that involve the surrender of the individual to the group - otherwise you get totalitarianism or, even worse, religion. And you cannot have the old welfare state because it doesn't follow the rules of the market - and thus leads to economic crisis.

But not so long ago the world was defined and divided by equally rigid rules. And no-one thought that could ever change.

I have discovered a lovely film from that time. Or, to be precise, from the moment when that rigid world was beginning to crumble, but no-one knew.

It is a documentary made in 1977 that follows two men from British Leyland on a visit to the Togliatti car plant in the Soviet Union.

Togliatti was the biggest car plant in the world. It turned out millions of the same car - the wonderful Lada.

I'm putting up two sections of the film. The first begins with Howard - a manager, and Bill - a trade unionist, saying goodbye to their wives (very good purple curtains and matching chair) and going off to Togliatti.

I love their enthusiasm for the means of production they discover in the Soviet plant. And also the weird and wonderful health cures that are revealed to them in the vast House of the Unions.

This next section of the film is fascinating. Howard and Bill go with Colin, the BBC reporter, to meet the plant managers and then the unions.

The union leader is called Mr Smekholin. He has a very frightening face. And there is a great moment when the Leyland man asks him how many strikes they have in the plant.

Mr Smekholin tells him bluntly. "There hasn't been a strike in the Soviet Union since 1917." The reason is simple. The Communist party thinks that strikes are bad for productivity.

Watch the face of the interpreter during all these interchanges. It is very revealing.

But first they go to see the Togliatti managers.

It is a very weird moment because, looking back now, we know that there was a completely other reality right in front of the British men that they couldn't see.

Colin is convinced that it is the unions and the Communist party committee that really control the plant. Not the managers. The managers, he tells us, in both commentary and questions, have no power any longer. This is because they have become trapped by the growing absurdities of the Soviet Plan.

But in reality the very opposite was true. The absurdities of the plan were actually beginning to allow the managers to become much more powerful.

They were using the chaos and incompetence of central control to construct their own alternative economic systems. Which they controlled for their own benefit.

In the case of Togliatti, senior managers were running an ever-growing shadow economy selling spare parts and even cars on the black market. It was supplying the needs that the Plan couldn't. And the "Red Directors" as they were called, were beginning to make a lot of money.

And around the time the film was being shot the Togliatti managers met a young academic from Moscow who had come to help on the computerisation of the car production.

He was called Boris Berezovsky.

Twelve years later - as the Soviet Union began to collapse - the Togliatti plant was brought to its knees and almost destroyed.

A number of journalists and historians have investigated what happened.

In 1989 Boris Berezovsky set up a company with the head managers of Togliatti. It was called LogoVaz. Initially it designed management software. But then it started to sell Lada cars.

What then happened is murky, but it is alleged that the managers in effect looted their own factory.

LogoVaz wanted Lada cars to sell. The managers of the Togliatti plant agreed to give tens of thousands of new cars to LogoVaz at a very low price. What's more, LogoVaz wouldn't have to pay for them for two and a half years. And, because of massive inflation, that payment would be a pittance.

It meant that Berezovsky would make millions. And so would other members of LogoVaz - who just happened also to be the directors of the Togliatti plant

But it also meant that there was no money left to pay the workers at the plant. They kept producing the cars - but for no money. And LogoVaz kept on selling the cars. And the old Red Directors became very rich.

And Boris Berezovsky began his rise to power.

At the time we in the west looked on in superiority. What was referred to as "gangster capitalism" could never happen here. But ten years later something rather similar did happen here - in the Midlands.

Starting in 2000, one of the few remaining bits of British Leyland - the giant Longbridge plant - was brought to its knees in very much the same way by its own senior managers.

They siphoned off money that was supposed to help rescue the plant, and instead used it to enrich themselves. They would be helped in this by a car salesman from Stratford on Avon.

In 1999 BMW had given up on what was now called the Rover Group. A Rover manager called John Towers dramatically announced he had created the "Phoenix Consortium" with a Rover car dealer called John Edwards and two other directors. Their aim was to rescue the company.

Here is Mr Towers being given a hero's welcome by the workers at Longbridge.

A government report that came out last year tells in great detail what in reality then happened.

The Phoenix directors systematically restructured the business. They did it in a way that ensured that many economic benefits flowed not to MG Rover and the thousands of workers, but to the directors themselves and the man they appointed chief executive of MG Rover.

The report is over 800 pages - and it is a fascinating snapshot of our time. It lists all sorts of schemes with names like "Project Slag", "Project Platinum" and "Project Aircraft" - all of them designed to try and bring profits not into MG Rover but into the holding company set up by the Phoenix consortium.

And then on the 8th of April 2005 it all collapsed. The DTI announced they were sending inspectors in to find out what had gone wrong. Hours later one of the heads of Phoenix went out and bought a piece of software called Evidence Eliminator. He then used it to wipe all sorts of interesting files from his computer.

Today's rigid rules about our society insist that the principles of the market must be applied to all sorts of areas that have nothing to do with the market.

But it seems that when the rules are actually applied to the market itself they often don't work as they are supposed to.

Here is Robert Peston on the News the night the report came out.

Meanwhile Vladimir Putin rescued Togliatti from disaster. Over the past five years he has pumped billions of roubles into the plant.

And in August of this year Putin decided to show his pride in Togliatti by driving a yellow Lada car across Russia.

Here is a video recorded by the Trans-Baikal Off-road Car Club. They proudly assembled by the road to record their Prime Minister's drive-by. But you can hear their scorn and hilarity when they realise that all the other vehicles in the convoy passing them were foreign made.

And worse.

Behind the Prime Minister's Lada was a back-up Lada. And behind that (2 minutes 7 seconds behind) was a low-loader carrying yet another Lada.

They were there because the Lada has a terrible tendency to break down.

But it is still a wonderful car. I know because I used to own one.

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  • Comment number 31. Posted by John M

    on 4 Jun 2011 13:41

    The second clip of the UK workers visiting Togliatti had a brief moment of resonance with me: the nursery with rows of sleeping children. My father was a journalist and his work took us to Moscow in about '72. I was four. Because my father wasn't with the embassy, my sister and I couldn't get places in the American nursery school and were sent to Russian ones. Initially, being older, I went to one alone. There was a nap time at some point every day, at which point the kids all dutifully lay down on these little cots, as shown in the film. I could not get to sleep, but the perk of this was that a beautiful woman sat and chatted with me very nicely, though it was probably all in Russian, which I did not know. I probably only went to this school for about a week, so this may have happened only once. I remember her giving me little yellow sweets, which made me feel I'd really done the right thing in not going to sleep. Perhaps they were knockout drops!

    In general, I found the two Russian nursery schools I attended depressing places. It wasn't so much the physical spaces, though these were perhaps a little darker than I was used to, but the drab stupidity of what we were expected to do. There was a lot of dancing around in circles to childish tunes as I remember it. Previously in Washington DC, I'd been to a Montessori school, so I went from a sort of nec plus ultra western individualist free play learning environment – where, so the theory went, and I do think it was pretty sound though I might have a few cavils, children 'at the sponge stage' would learn very quickly given the right stimulus – to the opposite extreme where, though the teachers were perfectly kind, activity was terribly regimented and really quite boring and nothing was taught at all (except conformism and submissiveness perhaps). I can't help feeling as I write this that infant-stage education, the theories around it and the ideology implicit in them, could be a fascinating research avenue for you, but I guess one could say that about a lot of things.

    I have a nice old photo on my mantelpiece of four kids, none of them me, at one of these schools. I think my father took it. They are playing with a model of a modern town and the boy in the middle, as if he is commandant, is dressed in a somewhat military style with a hat I know to have been red, though the photo is black and white. I think this was a 'young pioneer' style. There were always one or two kids dressed like this. Perhaps they were the children of party members, I don't know. Despite my general antipathy to the conformism of these places, I was rather covetous of some of the regalia. I never saw any girls wearing it.

    Something else I'm struck by in the film and have also noticed on trips to Berlin when I've gone to relatively unchanged places in the former East is the quality of the furniture and interior design. Admittedly, it's not Charles and Ray Eames, but a lot of it's pretty good and is duly bought up by hipsters for their Berlin flats. I don't think this is just nostalgia or even Ostalgie as it's known there (East nostalgia). The stuff is solidly made (it's held up for forty years) of decent materials and has a good sense of colour and good, modernist lines. A lot of it's not that different from the stuff we fetishise in Mad Men now. What happened to design? What happened to the modernist dream of good design through mass production for all? The story that dominated the Cold War in the west was that only the west had nice stuff. Since the fall of the Soviet bloc, less and less ordinary people have had nice stuff. Think silver-look plastic and wood veneer flooring (a photograph of wood on vynil). Things are made cheaply now and not made to last. Designers are often not employed at all to design so-called 'engineer-designed' electrical goods, which are expected to be discarded the first time they break. It would be neat to put this all down to the fact that great consumer goods are no longer needed to put the case against communism, too neat in my view. Still, an interesting trajectory. And, thinking about it, it's not just poor or ordinary people who've been affected. I've been for meetings in big corporate environments where the spaces and furniture are deathly in their blandness and shoddiness and the spaces hardly seem to have been thought about at all. Compare that to the meeting room with the Lenin wall decoration in the Togliatti film.

    Had a bit of trouble posting, so am trying again. If it ends up as a double post, perhaps this second attempt can be deleted.

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  • Comment number 30. Posted by Moor Larkin

    on 5 Mar 2011 20:42

    It looks like Bill was still fighting the fight in 2008... :-D.

    "His promises failed to sway retired car worker Bill Jupp who said pensioners had got ‘next to nothing’ in the Pre-Budget Report."

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1088930/Winter-bonus-Pensioners-receive-60-families-given-early-boost-child-benefits.html#ixzz1FlAisKT7

    Got to be the same guy surely.

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  • Comment number 29. Posted by Appalled of Tunbridge Wells

    on 9 Feb 2011 18:16

    It reminds me of a time when my piano instructor went on a group visit to the Soviet Union and got into all kinds of trouble by talking to the locals. At the airport a man asked him to take a document out of the country. He didn't know what to do, so he flushed it in the lavatory in the airport toilets. Pity it wasn't filmed.

    @avishalom
    Please make another application for that teaching job, or write the book, make the film - your own film. Anything to take this semi-philosophising critique away from my eyes.
    What kind of person wastes so many words trying to undermine someone else's work and replace it with their own rambling, ordinary views, and on that someone else's blog?!

    Go and consume and be free.

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  • Comment number 28. Posted by Moor Larkin

    on 5 Feb 2011 22:40

    The Phoenix amid the flames of the DeLorean? Back to the Future indeed.

    So far as the Lada is concerned...... Give me a Trabant any day. Vorunsprung dork technik.... :-D

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  • Comment number 27. Posted by avishalom

    on 21 Nov 2010 22:38

    @the art teacher wrote:

    " I think there probably are greater fascists than the self-appointed artists you talk about. Quite a few. I mean isn't fascism the opposite of Stirner's ideas?"

    -no, there is no greater Fascist than the self-appointed artist. A solipsist. He believes he, and no one other than he, can define Truth. He makes it wholly Subjective. Hitlre was above all an Artist, and an Artsy type. So was Mussolini...so was Stalin...they all were.


    "Isn't fascism associated with singular notions of truth? - isn't that what an artist has?"

    that's why the Artist is the Greatest Fascist, because his Singularity of Truth is Solipsistic. What could be more Singular?

    "I think his work is highly subjective, but it doesn't make the thing being said less true, especially compared to those who claim their work (or ideas) are wholly objective, which is just crazy.-obviously"

    -Absolutely agreed. The issue isn't about what Adam labels as subjective or objective. It's what you posses enough knowledge about, to evaluate as such. You're forgetting that Adam works exclusively with evidence. So the disclaimer about "personal" is a way of saying "not a political scientist" and justifies the unorthodox (from an academic perspective) approach he takes to his subject matter.

    This is where I want to yell, once again - Adam- your work is here both thanks to the BBC,but also hostage to it! We cannot preserve it in any form, the way the blogs are set up!! I know you are now paid by BBC, but does that mean its their product, not yours or ours?

    "I don't think you could build an ideology purely from what you read on here, and that's a good thing?"
    - Why not? You want to bet. Of course I can build an ideology. Why couldn't I? Is the work so limitless, the perspective so broad? Seriously? I don't want to demean it for a second - but I think critical thought is critical thought, eh? So I am not going to go soft on someone's ego, who is supposed to not even have their ego invested in this process. I certainly don't! I serve a function, and if Adam ever reads his comments, I cannot imagine him taking offense at mine, no matter how critical!

    "I can't speak for everyone, but I think a large part of the success of Adam's stuff is that at times it becomes 'stories about stories'. I like the phrase someone used on here, 'metanarratives'. What is the nature of stories, how are them formed, do people need them and why,

    - adam has never asked these questions. He tells stories about stories withotu even being aware of what he's doing. He can make all the disclaimers he wants, this is a metaphysical (in strict philosophical sense) issue, a question of what he's aiming to do. It's clear that the brilliance of his work comes from the obscurity of his evidence coupled with its political relevance.

    "he's not endorsing the idea of consumerism bringing or being freedom."

    no, I am. And I'm saying that Adam's "ideology" is to deny this is either conceivable or possible. He's always undermining this as an idea. His stories, the metaphysics of them, are possible only because he strikes from the shadow and then dissolves himself in it. So what we are seeing is more confabulatory, than the fables of those he subjects to ambiant emotional criticism.

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  • Comment number 26. Posted by clareoak

    on 16 Nov 2010 10:13

    This is great - thank you!

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  • Comment number 25. Posted by liberty

    on 5 Nov 2010 15:40

    To clarify: I don't dispute what happened in 1989. I do assert that this could not have happened in 1977 and that what was happening in 1977 was small scale side-incomes from selling spare parts, or using the grey and pink markets (allowed my the hierarchy) in such a way that they could pocket some extra income. Still, this all occurred within the plan structure, and the plan still determined what was made, how, by whom and for whom, etc.

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  • Comment number 24. Posted by liberty

    on 5 Nov 2010 15:28

    Wonderful film clips - I thank you for posting them.

    I must disagree, however, with some of your commentary on the Soviet system. Yes, it may be true that the managers at this plant were siphoning off money, selling parts on the black market, etc. But in fact until the the late 1980s, even given rampant corruption (which got worse in the 1980s), it was still the Party and the hierarchy of plan and minister that determined all of the choices inside the factory, from output levels, to investment choices, to inputs (including from whom they were purchased), to prices.

    Yet, although this film was made in 1977, you imply otherwise. You imply that managers had real power in contrast to what is said in the film when you say:

    "Colin is convinced that it is the unions and the Communist party committee that really control the plant. Not the managers....

    But in reality the very opposite was true. The absurdities of the plan were actually beginning to allow the managers to become much more powerful.

    They were using the chaos and incompetence of central control to construct their own alternative economic systems. Which they controlled for their own benefit. "

    No. They were not creating an alternative economic system. They were simply creating a corrupt underbelly of the planned economy in which they could siphon off resources from the factories to supplement their own income. This did not give them any of the powers described in the film, such as power over what to produce, how, how many workers of which type, what machines to use, where to get inputs, what to make, for what price to sell it at, etc. All of this was still decided by the plan and the hierarchy above the heads of the managers - and the Party still watched over the managers like hawks checking that they did follow these commands.

    The fact that they were able to still exploit this system and make money on the side was simply testament to their genius for corruption. I mention this because it is an increasingly common mistake - people think now that the Soviet Union was really just a corrupt Latin-American-style mafia state, not a planned economy. This is not at all true - and the distinction is important.

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  • Comment number 23. Posted by StenkaRazin

    on 4 Nov 2010 14:32

    Good points Tracy,

    I think the issue here is one of describing causes via associated conditions, rather than the motivation directly. The 'times' is a blanket term, that doesn't bother to mention the direct cause.

    I believe that people are rather insular by nature during wealthy, or as Pasha Glubber might put it, decadent 'times'; this I would term 'rude health'.

    In 'times' of stress, such as attack, real or perceived, or reduction of ones personal wealth, then people are apt to congregate, and put their hopes in the force of numbers, to resolve their present plight. What we call 'politics', would then be the symptom of 'social health'.

    A consequence may become addiction; if the political solutions work during the aberrant 'times', people develop a 'faith' in the politics for all time. So that the Yin and Yang of our social problems stem from our perpetual antagonism between our inherent sense of individualism during happy times, and our acquired dependency upon others, during strife, real or perceived.

    And as with all addictions, you develop a market run by pushers and dealers; with the associated turf wars between parties. The political Parties are therefore purely parasitical, and rely solely upon the sense of despair of withdrawal perceived if their religion fails in the wake of perpetual strife, or the sense of danger, real or perceived.

    To help people back to rude health, we must face up to the 'cold turkey' of denying the bad news of the pushers. We should allow a little anarchy into our lives, at the risk of chaos, we should be more resolute unto our own capabilities to survive the political nightmares. Some say you should avoid boring people to enhance your life; but I say you should avoid cowards; for they are the most dependent upon political solutions; and just as a junky is advised to stay away from other addicts, so we must avoid those who seek political solutions to problems that were dreamed up by the political pushers, to perpetuate their lucrative self serving market.

    JimmyGiro

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  • Comment number 22. Posted by the art teacher

    on 4 Nov 2010 13:35

    @avishalom

    I don't think that fair at all. I mean, I only have one shrine dedicated to Adam, and I only work on it every other day.

    I'd just make a couple of points about what you say.

    - I think there probably are greater fascists than the self-appointed artists you talk about. Quite a few. I mean isn't facism the opposite of Stirner's ideas? Isn't fascism associated with singular notions of truth? The opposition to this is not saying 'no, that's wrong here is my truth, and it's truer', the opposition should be to the notion of singular objective truths/reality.

    - On a blog of a guy whose body of work in an enormous part covers how absolute beliefs and ideologies have had unpredicatable and frequently negative consequences you're asking him, in effect, for something more concrete. Perhaps i'm misterpreting, but in layman terms it seems you object to him sitting on the fence, or not spelling out the way in which things should be interpreted. I think his work is highly subjective, but it doesn't make the thing being said less true, especially compared to those who claim their work (or ideas) are wholly objective, which is just crazy. We've discussed on here repeatedly what we think his stuff means, what it's getting at, that for me is the fun of it. I don't think you could build an ideology purely from what you read on here, and that's a good thing. It doesn't mean the death of reason, or that you can't work things out and get closer to fact, to truth. It just means you probably won't have a clue when you've got there, regardless.

    - I can't speak for everyone, but I think a large part of the success of Adam's stuff is that at times it becomes 'stories about stories'. I like the phrase someone used on here, 'metanarratives'. What is the nature of stories, how are them formed, do people need them and why, what are the limitation of narrative in gaining a greater understanding of things, if there are any, can there be meaning without narratives, etc?

    - The Madison Avenue example - Well most of us will be familiar with some of Adam's other stuff, so I reckon he's not endorsing the idea of consumerism bringing or being freedom. But in it's own right I think that's pretty detectable; he talks pointedly about the consumer-feminist notions of beauty still being informed by men, for example.

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