Sunday 30 October 2011, 17:23

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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The protest movement that began with Occupy Wall Street is very clear about what it is against - an international capitalism that is cruel, unfair and untenable. But the movement refuses to say what it is for. Much of this refusal comes from a belief that modern capitalist society is extremely skilful at co-opting dissent and that any discussion with the media is the first step in being reabsorbed into 'the system'.

It also has the added benefit of irritating mainstream journalists and commentators.

I want to tell an odd, romantic, but ultimately very sad story that shows where this fear of possession on the left comes from. It is set during last the time that British, European and American students tried to be a vanguard for revolution. It shows how that fear can easily lead to a pessimistic belief that all one's dreams for a better future are just illusions - and how that pessimism then came to paralyse the left in Britain throughout the eighties and nineties.

But the story is not all sad - because I think it shows that the same thing does not have to happen again.

That just as the ideology of modern capitalism is a choice, not a natural reality - so too is the pessimism of the left.

The story begins on the evening of June 11th 1968 in a first floor flat in London. There was a party given by a man called Clive Goodwin who was the editor of a radical newspaper called Black Dwarf. He is one of the central figures in this story.

Goodwin's flat was on the Cromwell Road in west London. The next day the BBC were going to record a radio programme called Students in Revolt and they had flown in the leading revolutionary students from all over Europe and America to take part - and Clive had invited them all to a party in this first floor room. It included famous names like Danny Cohn-Bendit the Autonomist revolutionary from the Paris uprising and Rudi Dutschke whose attempted assassination had led to violent riots across Germany.

The flat is now part of The Fraser Suites - "luxury serviced apartments for our corporate clients".

All the student revolutionaries at the party saw themselves as part of a new kind of left wing radicalism. They were against the the Soviet Union which they saw as just another kind of totalitarian dictatorship. But the big enemy was the United States and its terrifying power. It was killing thousands of Vietnamese civilians in the name of freedom, while its multinational conglomerates were ruthlessly exploiting and devastating the third world to feed Americans with a constant stream of luxury consumer goods.

This ferocious and destructive consumer-war machine must be overthrown.

Another guest was the left-wing theatre critic Ken Tynan. He wrote in his diary about a moment at the party:

"The barricades were up in Paris: everyone was talking about 'instant revolution': and when Cohn-Bendit held a question and answer session, I made myself immediately unpopular by asking: 'What's your strategy? What is the next step the students will take?' Cohn-Bendit said impatiently 'the whole point of our revolution is that we do not follow plans. It is a spontaneous permanent revolution. We improvise it. It is like jazz.' Everyone applauded and reproved my carping."

But there was a ghost that haunted the party in the room that night - Clive Goodwin's young and beautiful wife who had died tragically less than two years before. She was a revolutionary painter and collagist called Pauline Boty.

Pauline Boty and Clive Goodwin had been at the centre of the student movement as it grew in Britain. But the reason Pauline was like a ghost at the party was not just her death, but because she had come from a tradition of revolt that was beginning to disappear from the movement.

Because Pauline had loved America. She wasn't frightened of it, she loved the powerful images at the heart of American culture, and the deep emotions the music and films evoked in her.

Pauline Boty wasn't naive about American power, and she knew those alluring images and sounds could crawl into your brain and shape the way you saw the world, and disguise the underlying exploitation. But she believed that she could possess those images and use her imagination to rework them into something magical, inspiring and liberating.

Here is one of her paintings that expresses that confidence. It's called The Only Blonde in the World. She painted it in 1963.

Pauline had gone to study at the Royal College of Art in London in 1958 and had become one of the leaders of a new art movement. Here is the movement described by The Listener magazine in 1962

In 1964 the BBC made a film about this movement. It was called Pop Goes the Easel and was directed by Ken Russell.It focussed on four artists but he two stars of the film were Pauline Boty and her best friend Derek Boshier.

Here are two sections about them. First is Boshier - he brilliantly describes how popular images of American power seduce the mind - they start to "infiltrate you at the breakfast table". But one shouldn't be frightened because it is possible to possess those images in turn.

Then there is Pauline Boty - her bit begins with a wonderful piece of film-making - where she is the girl running away.

Ken Russell's production notes for the film say that "the authoritative woman in the wheelchair, should be someone representing authority, hideously formal". While the three girls around her "need to look as though they represent an institution."

And Pauline should play "herself - an art student resenting authority"

The first shots in the film are of all four artists together - they were all friends - the other two are Peter Blake and Peter Phillips. It is beautifully shot, and the song is Goodbye Cruel World by James Darren.

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Then the growing student movement found a political philosopher who would become their inspiration and guide. He was called Herbert Marcuse.

Marcuse was going to have a powerful and very complicated effect on the student revolutionaries. On the one hand his ideas explained the fascination that people like Pauline Boty had for the images of American power - but he also questioned whether it was ever possible to control or transcend them.

Marcuse said that you could never break the spell. That however much you took American culture and played rebelliously with it, you would always remain possessed by it. But this would set in motion a terrible logic within the New Left that would lead to a creeping distrust of all dreams of the future.

Here is Marcuse surrounded by lots of revolutionary students at the "Free University" in Berlin.

Marcuse first became famous with a book called Eros and Civilization. In it he reached back to utopian socialist ideas beyond the dead hand of Marxism and communism - to long-forgotten names like Charles Fourier.

Fourier had said that love and sex could be the motors for a truly free society. It was only the coercive mechanisms of "reason" and "duty" that repressed and distorted these desires in human beings.

Marcuse imagined a future in which individuals would be liberated both from the fetters of capitalism and from the repression of their true instincts. It was an optimistic vision - and people like Pauline Boty who truly expressed their desires in art and in love were like creatures in this new world.

But then in 1964 Marcuse became pessimistic. He wrote another book called One Dimensional Man. He had realised, he said, that capitalist society was far more manipulative than he had imagined. It had learnt how to take those desires and feed the masses spurious, addictive pleasures that enslaved them.

This wasn't liberation - it was a dark world of what looked on the surface like an entrancing modern culture in which sex was discussed and portrayed openly, but really it was all cheap gratifications and stupefying pleasures that blotted out true human needs.

Here is Marcuse on television explaining how human beings are enmeshed in this new psycho-technical power structure. Even the grand progressive dreams of the Enlightenment have been appropriated, he says, and used not for liberating human beings but for repression.

Marcuse was part of what was called the Frankfurt School of political philosophy.

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Marcuse gripped the student left because he describe the revolution in a completely new way. The struggle was in your heads as much as in the streets.

Capitalism had seized control of the inner desires and feelings of their workers and were manipulating it at will. It was summed up in a slogan - There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads. He must be Destroyed.

This meant, Marcuse said, that you couldn't look to the workers to start the revolution - instead it would be led by three groups on the margins.

Number one were the alienated black underclass. Because capitalists didn't bother to manipulate their desires

Number two were the exploited workers of the third world. Ditto.

And number three were the students in the west. Because they had the power to see through the false consciousness.

By the mid 1960s two of the leading members in London of this new rebirth of left wing politics were Pauline Boty and her husband Clive Goodwin.

Clive Goodwin was a working class boy from Kensal Rise in North London. In the 1950s he became an actor - and then he started a magazine about the theatre called Encore, working with people like Vanessa Redgrave and Kenneth Tynan. This took him into the early New Left that was growing up in the publishing world and he soon became an influential figure who helped fuse avant-garde theatre with revolutionary politics.

Then Clive became part of the modern media world. He presented a youth programme called That's For Me on ITV which mixed politics and culture. And he received the highest accolade when Ken Russell chose him to act in what was seen as an extraordinary breakthrough film for the BBC - called Dante's Inferno.

It's the story of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. But Russell self-consciously dramatised it to echo the student revolution that was happening all over the west in the mid-60s. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was played by Oliver Reed, but Ken Russell chose the elite political and cultural avant-garde of London to play the group of "student idealists" gathered around Rossetti. And he asked Clive Goodwin to play John Ruskin.

Here are some extracts - beginning with the start of the film that makes the revolutionary parallels clear, followed by Clive Goodwin appearing as Ruskin. And then Oliver Reed going demented, plus some totally brilliant melodramatic film making. The style is of its time but it is still wonderful. And it wasn't just style, they really did think that this was the way to break through the rigid way people saw the world.

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And then one morning when he was walking with Kenneth Tynan, Clive Goodwin met Pauline Boty. Ten days later they were married.

In a wonderful and brilliant biography of Boty - but as yet unpublished (someone should publish it) - the writer Adam Smith describes how Boty had been in a tragic love affair with a married television producer. Boty wanted to marry her lover but she began to realise that this was never going to happen. Adam Smith has unearthed fantastic material that shows how Boty by this time was emerging as one of the early feminists - writing and presenting sardonic monologues on "that cold, cardigan-clad, sexless ghost known to the world as The English Gentlewoman" for BBC Radio.

But she was also very honestly aware of the ambiguities that emerge when the deep emotions of love and desire get mixed up with trying to be an independent person. Smith has found an interview Boty gave to the writer Nell Dunn for a book called Talking To Women. Pauline describes bluntly why she got married.

"I got married under very extraordinary circumstances, very odd. I mean - I was very heavily involved with someone who was married and I never really quite believed anything he said, even though probably a lot of it might have been true but I never sort of have confidence that people love me. I know people love people at moments you know, and very genuinely - I can't believe that someone can love someone consistently.

One of the awful things about being in a situation with a married man is that you're kind of sitting in your little box of a room waiting for a phone call, and then every now and then they go up to this box and lift the lid and take you out and it's lovely, you know. And I hate that kind of inactive thing. I can't stand it, and it just got to a peak. And then I met Clive and I just got on terribly well with him, we got stoned all the time and I only knew him ten days before and he was the very first man I met who really liked women, for one thing - a terribly rare thing in a man.

I mean he was the first man I could talk to very freely to but I didn't like him at all at first. But he was the first man who made me laugh quite sort of sincerely over the telephone because I'm terrible about the telephone, I don't like the telephone at all"

Kenneth Tynan said that Boty was very sharp, very quick and very honest.

And Pauline too became part of the London revolutionary scene. Here is a great bit of her appearing in yet another Ken Russell film - this time the story of the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. It illustrates Bartok's ballet The Miraculous Mandarin' which was banned throughout Europe in 1919.

Again the revolutionary parallels are made clear. The scene from the Miraculous Mandarin is set in the London of the 1960s intercut with the repression of revolution in Germany and Austria in the 1920s. Pauline plays a prostitute whose job is to lure a man to be beaten and killed by shadowy forces. Corrupted sex and state violence are all part of repression.

The painting you glimpse in the background is one of Boty's, called Colour Me Gone. Good title.

And I think Mr Russell had been watching too much Jean Luc Godard.

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In 1965 Pauline Boty became pregnant. But early in the pregnancy an ante natal check revealed that she had a form of lymphatic cancer.

She was determined not to have an abortion - and continued the pregnancy. One story says that Boty was determined to beat the illness through radiotherapy. Another says that she refused aggressive therapy in order to save her unborn child.

The baby was born in February 1966 and was named Boty Goodwin.

But Pauline's cancer continued to get worse and on July the 1st 1966 she died in the Royal Marsden hospital.

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Exactly a year later Herbert Marcuse gave a speech in Berlin which he entitled "The End of Utopia". He didn't mean, Marcuse said, that utopia was impossible - in fact it was the reverse, human beings now had the technical and scientific means to achieve what had only once been dreamed of. Today it was no longer a utopia - it was a real possibility.

But then he asked the depressing question. Why weren't the masses rising up and seizing the means of achieving this? Marcuse's answer was simple - literally everyone in society was conspiring against it. Or as he put it: 'the total mobilization of existing society against its own potential for liberation'. Which simply meant - everyone's minds had been possessed.

At the end of the lecture a student got up and asked the first question: " To what extent do you see in the English pop movement a positive point of departure for an aesthetic-erotic way of life?"

Marcuse answered: "As you may know, of the many things I am reproached with, I have supposedly asserted that today the movement of student opposition in itself can make the revolution. Far be it from me to assert such a thing. The groups you have mentioned are characteristic of a state of disintegration within the system, which as a mere phenomenon has no revolutionary force whatsoever but which perhaps at some time will be able to play it role in connection with other, much stronger objective forces."

In revolutionary terms this was a big put-down of the student movement. They thought that Marcuse had told them they would be the vanguard - but now he was denying he had ever said such a thing.

A very clever BBC journalist had also spotted the growing absurd direction the student movement was taking as is pursued the ideas it thought it had taken from Marcuse.

He was called James Mossman - and in 1968 he made a brilliant film which used a fly on the wall technique to watch the British student revolutionaries as they tried to liberate the workers from their false consciousness.

It is not nasty, but Mossman turns it into a subtle British comedy. The bit at the occupation of the Hornsey College of Art is just wonderful. While Paris students were rioting and confronting the might of the French state, the British students take over their art college. And without realising it they start to copy the enemy - the women make the tea and run the switchboard while all the men sit round talking to Mossman about 'kicking the police horses' bottoms'.

The film also has shots of the office a new radical newspaper that Clive Goodwin had founded called Black Dwarf.

And the quote from the student at the end about how people have been brainwashed is very funny. "I mean their whole mind is, you know, like a cabbage, they can't do exactly what they want". Marcuse couldn't have put it better

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There was a growing sense of despair among the British revolutionaries. And Marcuse's explanation - that everyone's minds had been possessed - now began to work a curious logic, because it seemed to make capitalism even more powerful in the minds of the revolutionaries. Capitalism became for them a devilish force that could take any authentic part of human experience and turn it into a tool of psychological manipulation. Nothing was safe - not even what you dreamt of inside your own heads.

The most dramatic and brilliant expression of this growing pessimism came in 1968 with a made-for-TV play on the BBC called "The Year of the Sex Olympics"

It was written by Nigel Kneale who had also written the Quatermass science fiction films. The Year of the Sex Olympics is set in the future in a society where television had become the central means of pacifying the masses by showing them live sex - while the audience watched passively in a drugged state.

But one of the TV elite, Nat, realises that this is bad and decides that he is going to smash through this illusion with real emotions - that will then awaken the masses from their one-dimensional lives. But he hasn't reckoned on the ability of those who run the "media-complex" to take that revolutionary reality and twist it and use it to intensify their control.

Nat suggests a new programme called The Live Life Show. He and a woman who also has seen through the illusion will go to a remote island and live a "real" life. Cameras will watch them 24 hours a day. Nat believes that what the audience see will punch through the manufactured "apathy" and re-energise them.

But soon their child falls ill, then they find there is a psychopath on the island. The audience watch in their millions - but not in the way Nat hopes.

The play is wonderfully kitsch. Leonard Rossiter plays the devilish "controller" - "no more tensions, just cool". And I particularly like the upmarket TV programme for the more discerning viewer - "Artsex". While the controller's nasty sidekick has some great lines - "They think the show's over, but now it gets super-king".

It is a perfect expression of the paranoia that was beginning to seep into the left at the end of the 1960s - and it also brilliantly prefigures Big Brother by thirty years.

It was originally transmitted in colour - but this is a black and white recording, it is all that remains.

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By the end of the 1960s the independent left wing revolutionaries like Clive Goodwin began to despair. The movement was being taken over by dull, lifeless theoreticians. But there was one hope left for the revolution - it was the marginalised and alienated blacks that Marcuse had said were the other vanguard.

Goodwin turned to writing about charismatic Black Power leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale in his Black Dwarf newspaper. And in Britain a charismatic leader of black radicalism emerged called Michael Malik. He consciously modelled himself on Malcolm X - and set out to challenge the hypocrisies of white power and expose the inequalities its supremacy was built on.

Michael Malik renamed himself Michael X and became a media star in the late 1960s in Britain. Here he is challenging a very smug representative of the white establishment on the BBC in 1970.

His organisation was called the Radical Adjustment Action Society - RAAS for short.

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But then suddenly that dream also fell apart - and in a catastrophic and horrific way.

In 1971 it was revealed that Michael X had ordered the murder of a young white student. It was only the beginning of an extraordinary set of revelations - that showed Michael X had used money given to him by white middle class leftists to build what was effectively a gangster empire that ran drugs and killed anyone that got in the way. That his claims of building a revolutionary organisation had been a complete fraud.

A BBC then made a very powerful film that exposed Michael X and how he had conned the revolutionary left in Britain. It is a fantastic piece of journalism and also shines a harsh light onto the strange and rather desperate relationship between the children of the rich middle classes in London and their idol - Michael X - the last hope of true revolution.

The film is a cruel but very accurate expose of their delusions - told in parts like a thriller. I have put up a long extract from it because of all the fantastic twists and turns in the story and the extraordinary range of characters - that even includes Diana Athill, a legendary London literary figure. And it ends with Michael X behaving like a Werner Herzog hero - fleeing into the remote jungle - and we follow his track. It's an amazing forgotten story.

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It was the final nail. The white left-wingers argued that this criminality was the result of capitalist oppression because it distorted and corrupted people like Michael X. But these excuses only served to make capitalism seem even more powerful and unchallengeable.

By now Clive Goodwin had become a successful literary agent - representing playwrights. And in 1973 one of his most famous clients, a playwright called Trevor Griffiths wrote a play called The Party that tore apart the revolutionary dreams of the previous ten years. It caused a sensation when it was put on at the National Theatre.

It is set one night in a flat in 1968 - the set directions are clear that it was modelled on the sort of flat that Clive Goodwin and Pauline Boty had back then - "SW7 somewhere. Big, white, sunny, rather cool. Hockney and Botys".

It takes you back to where this story started - in a flat one night in 1968 on the Cromwell Road and a room full of revolutionaries. But instead of sharing their hope and dreams they are now tearing each other apart. One of them is a publisher called Jeremy who is modelled on Clive Goodwin. Then an old Trotskyite called John Tagg brutally dissects the roots of their pessimism as the projection of their narcissism. The implication is that really their type of psycho-sexual liberation is just another form of oppression.

But then John Tagg turns out to be a brutal and heartless monster. Which means there's no hope at all.

It's clunky, and its very actor-heavy in its stagieness - but it tells you a lot about where the left had ended up. And Tagg's speech - which I have put in, is very powerful.

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In 1977 Clive Goodwin went to Los Angeles with Trevor Griffiths. They were going to see Warren Beatty who wanted to make a film called Reds - about the Russian revolution. The script had been written by Trevor Griffiths.

One evening Goodwin got a terrible headache. He walked into the lobby of the Beverley Wilshire Hotel and began to vomit. The hotel security took him to the men's room where Goodwin passed out. They were convinced he was drunk. He wasn't staying at the hotel so security called the police who came and handcuffed him, dragged him through the lobby and laid him face down on the pavement.

They put him in a police cell - and the next morning they found him dead. He hadn't been drunk, he had suffered a brain haemorrhage.

To many of his friends on the left it showed just how brutal and uncaring a society America really was - underneath the veneer of dreams that his wife Pauline Boty had once been so entranced by.

And what had begun as an idealistic reinvention of left wing politics in Britain also ended at the very same time with a distrust of all dreams.

It was the end result of Herbert Marcuse's theories. He had said the capitalist power works by possessing and manipulating the desires inside your own mind. But no-one ever explained how you distinguished between the two kinds of dreams inside your head - the ones that were planted there by evil capitalist fantasy-machines, and the genuine dreams of a new and better future. And if your dreams of a better future failed, and the world didn't change - then maybe they too were just part of the manipulation?

And as the revolutionary aims of that generation failed, a terrible suspicion began to grow. Maybe all dreams of other worlds were just illusions. And that in turn led them to accept the dreary functionalism of the material world and the utilitarianism of modern economics which simply said that dreams were located in material, physical objects that could then, conveniently for capitalism, be sold for vast amounts of money. And people became increasingly obsessed by their own material form - their bodies.

The right thing to do now was not to change society, but change yourself. And not what went on inside your head, but simply your Body Mass Index.

In the early 1990s Pauline Boty's daughter - Boty Goodwin - went to Los Angeles to study art. She was rich because of her mother's estate, but she also felt trapped by her mother's shadow. She started taking heroin, and her studies were disrupted. In 1994 she wrote a letter to her moral tutor:

"I remember the days when keeping thin was a matter of a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a line of coke. I lived off McDonalds and ice cream and kept a steady 120 pounds. Needless to say, not any more. Now I am obsessed. Everywhere I look I see ads from every newsstand. LOOK BETTER NAKED. A SEXY BUTT, SLIM THIGHS, FLAT ABS. WOMEN WHO LOVE SEX AND HOW MEN CAN TELL. Are the two connected? I want to beat up sixteen-year-old girls.

Why is that despite an adoring father, an almost nauseatingly 'politically-correct' upbringing, and a feminist historian godmother, the tyranny of beauty still obsesses me so?"

In November 1995 Boty Goodwin died of a heroin overdose.

The student left in the 1960s had believed that the revolution would start in their heads because that was where capitalist power exerted its control. But it was a dead end because it led them into a terrible trap - where they became paralysed by the fear of possession.

As a result they became unable to articulate an inspiring vision of the future and came to distrust their own dreams because they were frightened that they would be immediately appropriated. And that is where much of the left still remain - paralysed by a dark pessimism and a fear of the cynicism of the media around them.

To really change the world the left needs to go back to the same utopian socialists that Marcuse rediscovered in the 1950s, and the grand romantic visions of other worlds they put forward.

The one I love most is Charles Fourier who in the 1830s outlined an extraordinary new kind of society based on communities he called Phalanxes.

Here is an image of a Phalanx.

Fourier had no truck with the idea of changing people. All the different things inside their heads was just what they were like - and you worked with that extraordinary range of human nature and channelled it to create societies in which everyone played a role suited to their nature. His vision is wonderfully optimistic. Even potential murderers are allowed to work off their psychotic impulses - as butchers.

And at the heart of Fourier's society is the idea of Love - a grand feeling of which sex is just a part. And there were special groups in the Phalanxes whose job was to manage the dynamics of Love. If you had been rejected by someone you loved, a special corps of "fairies" would come immediately and take you away, and cure you of your unhappiness.

Fourier's romantic innocence seems intensely shocking to us today - because it seems so naive and optimistic. But it is their power to shock us in this way that potentially makes these long-forgotten utopian ideas genuinely revolutionary.

You may not believe in fairies, but in today's world it's hard to believe in the infallibility of the laws of free-market economics. So which one would you choose?

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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 2.

    I don't know what to write, I just want to post something.

    That's just phenomenal. I can't think of anything else to say yet.

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    Comment number 3.

    One thing that strikes in the connections with Kiss. The footage of the girl running down the corridors, and those amazing shots above the Earth are recognisable.

    Then that last bit of film. What do you say about that? That girl, with that music playing…. it's hard to work out how to describe it, the only word I can think of is 'audacious'. That record is used brilliantly in Kiss, it cuts in a phenomenal way too.

    It reminds me of the use of River Deep Mountain High in Kiss too, just total intoxication. I could be way off, or stating the obvious, but it's a like a statement in anti-filtering? Thomas Frank in the book Ad mentions in the Madison Avenue post says something interesting. That looking back and separating the authentic revolutionary counterculture of the 60s from business and advertising and co-opting can't be done. They are intertwined, interrelated in a complex way that commentators over simplify, both right and left, by trying to separate them. I think it's related, I don't know how to articulate it. Maybe 'don't hate style just because it can be used for ugliness'.

    The films are killer, and as mentioned, they've got Nouvelle Vague all over 'em like moss. When that Boty is doing her hair in the mirror, it reminds me of this Chabrol film, Les Bonnes Femmes. The intro with the artists could've come straight out of French New Wave.

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    Comment number 4.

    So basically Adam, you've turned into a hippie?

    I can only shake my head and sigh and respond: no no no. That is not the answer.

    I want people to wake up and face reality, and live positive lives, not slip into another Platonic dream state.

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    Comment number 5.

    I'm not sure many people will welcome this comparison, including AC, but has anyone seen the video to that song, Video Games?

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    Comment number 6.

    In one of your previous films you interviewed an American leader of the student movement of the 1960s and he said that one of the reasons that the revolutionaries decided to change the way people thought was that the original protesters came up against the power and violence of the state and they saw how powerful that was.

    Interesting then to look at today's protest and perhaps the difference is that violence is not being used against the Occupy protesters and also that if it were it would not be now accepted.

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    Comment number 7.

    Excellent piece in the way you entwine the heady individualism of the so-called revolutionary culture of the 1960s with the work of Marcuse. It all falls down when you get to Fourier (sex is part of love? How Victorian), but i never dreamed the answers to the world's problems would be posted on a BBC blog.

    I grew up with parents concerned with nuclear energy, freedom of assembly and sexual expression etc. in the 1970s (when "the 60s" happened in Australia). I have thought a lot about my upbringing (drugs, openness with sexuality and the body, freedom to read and see what I wanted to from an early age) and I continue to identify with social justice and direct action. The 1960s generation were reacting against an order established around an extremely regimented social order, while being the first to deal with the 'image commodification' that you describe above. Writers, film makers, artists poets and musicians from the time are interesting today as the front line is understanding, deconstructing and resisting a cultural force that is now part of our everyday reality. However, many (not all) of the figures from this time place a tremendous emphasis on the individual, on freedom and the disconnect from what is generally an oppressive, cruel and exploitative system of economics, production, labour etc. This is a problem that Marcuse understood. I do not think he came up with a solution. 'Love' a la Fourier will take care of itself, if it is allowed to. Faeries bursting in and educating people sounds ominous. Beyond 'Love' there is a need to find meaning in life. If poor Boty was so moved by the need to have a perfect body she could not find meaning beyond that. As we package people and sell their images to others, we are depleting a wealth of human meaning that stretches back to the earliest times of our species on this planet. This is the property of everyone; knowledge, art, music, literature, sport. This is what Capitalism withholds from people, along with food, water, education, travel, shelter, plumbing, fee expression, and hope.

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    Comment number 8.

    John Gray has partially dealt with this topic in his *Straw Dogs* [2002, pp.166-170: Granta Books], a text worth reading in tandem with Mr Curtis' above post. In contrast to Curtis, Gray sees the possibility of a radical communitarian utopia as envisaged by the Situationists and their intellectual antecedents - Marx, Fourier and (even further back) the medieval Brethren of the Free Spirit - as premised upon rather suspect gnostic notions of matter being the prison of man’s soul:

    “Marx scorned utopianism as unscientific. But if 'scientific socialism' resembles any science, it is alchemy. Along with other Enlightenment thinkers, Marx believed that technology could transmute the base metal of human nature into gold. In the communist society of the future, there was to be no limit on the growth of production or the expansion of human numbers. With the abolition of scarcity, private property, the family, the state and the division of labour would disappear. Marx imagined the end of scarcity would bring the end of history. He could not bring himself to see that a world without scarcity had already been achieved - in the prehistoric societies that he and Engels lumped together as 'primitive communism'.” (pp.167)

    "The Situationists' utopia is an updated version of Fourier's but, in a lapse of mind they seem never to have noticed, the administration of this workless society is handed over to workers' councils. These are not meant to be organs of government, for - we are assured - none will be needed. Going even further than Fourier, who had proposed that dirty work be done by children, the Situationists declared that automation would make physical labour unnecessary.” (pp.168)

    “The Situationists and the Brethren of the Free Spirit are separated by centuries, but their view of human possibilities is the same. Humans are gods stranded in a world of darkness. Their labours are not the natural consequence of their inordinate wants. They are the curse of a demiurge. All that needs to be done to free humanity from labour is to throw off this evil power. This mystical vision is the Situationists' true inspiration, and that of anyone who has ever dreamt of a world in which humans can live without restraint.” (pp.170)

    If Gray is to be believed, do we not have cause for a healthy suspicion toward the claims of radical communitarian utopians, the kind whose ideas Mr Curtis is here suggesting we revist?

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    Comment number 9.

    Of note to British readers.

    The Royal Shakespeare Company is doing a modern dress version of Marat/Sade. It is a play which speaks to the necessity of and futility of revolution.
    For a more candid take and one less steeped in the 60's with the usual old farts like Marcuse (today it would be Slavoj Zizek and the like) see Laurie Penny. Laurie Penny's column is in The New Statesman widely available in Britain.
    Here's the first question I ask at new meetings. It might be at sustainability gatherings or Occupy, though our Occupy in Wisconsin US in a small city has lost some momentum.
    The question is described this way:
    There's a question that is asked by trekkies over the long years that the Star Trek franchise has been active: Who cleans the toilets on the Enterprise?
    Marcuse and other philosophers never really ask this question. But the philosophers, pundits and professors know one thing for sure. It's not them.


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    Comment number 10.

    This reminds me of the route that Houellebcq took. I remember one essay where he says he is against marxism and liberalism, claiming both systems proved to lead to destructive results. The first (marxism) because it is grounded in materialism and proved to be unable to change human behaviour, witness the regression to wild west capitalism after the fall of the USSR, and the second (liberalism) because it has a naive belief in the miraculous synthesis of individual preferences in the free market. But in the same essay he calls himself a "communist" in the tradition of the 19th century utopian socialist Auguste Comte. It takes a Houellebcq, of course, with his strong critique of the sixties liberation movement (which was not a sexual liberation at all, according to him) to reintroduce the word communism in a positive light. Not that he is too optimistic about the feasibility that his project, with a hard emphasis on science, has a lot of chance of catching on, though.

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    Comment number 11.

    @ Christian,

    For me, all -isms or utopias are the megalomania of tyrannical personalities. We've seen Adam Curtis deconstruct such delusions and fantasies time and time again, such as the likes of Ayn Rand, B.F. Skinner, Tony Blair, Edward Bernays and so on.

    John Gray seems to be a liberal who deconstructed liberalism rather successfully, and found the same tyrannical fantasies within the entire modern tradition. He also thinks turning backwards to the past is no solution to our modern problems.

    This human craving for power is not only restricted to the state, but exists within non-state organizations too, including anarchist organizations that set themselves up naively to only fall later once hierarchy forces itself upon the group, thus destroying its Utopian foundations from within.

    That should be the lessons of the left, and why they're in such pessimistic tatters. It's difficult to fight the monster of tyranny and inequality when it creeps into the very organizations set up to fight it.

    Artists can transform people and make lives better, I have no problem with that. But would artists with enormous power use that power for good or bad? I think whatever gains could be made by the good would be diminished by the bad. And we'd end up with a mundane world in the middle, like we have in reality.

    I think Adam Curtis is one of the good artists, and so Adam feel free to build us the dream society, I will happily live in it.

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    Comment number 12.

    Eve: Pauline Boty

    Adam: in love, I think.

    Who wouldn't be - only "the hourglass of time and space denies"

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    Comment number 13.

    I have great respect for your work and you tell a nice, insightful story, as always. But I think you're way off base in your criticism of the Occupy movement here. This alleged lack of a positive vision is really overblown. C’mon, what do you expect from a decentralized movement that claims to represent the vast majority of the population? An instant leader? A new political system? If the media expects the movement to come up with a telegenic flack to quip a single sound bite solution to all the problems, they are the ones trapped in their tired theories.

    My experience from attending events, watching the live video streams, and engaging in social media conversations is that vast majority of people probably just want reasonable reforms to the system. Everyone has many things they are for and the movement is slowly trying to figure out a transparent and open way forward. The 99% declaration (https://sites.google.com/site/the99percentdeclaration/), from the New York group reflects many common themes of the movement. We are trying to figure out and agree on significant political reforms. A quick trip to just about any Occupy website or general assembly will show this. Positive changes are being proposed. Please stop pretending otherwise.


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    Comment number 14.

    There's a difference between those seeking to change society in 1960, when it had produced (for all it's flaws) prosperity and material wealth more widely distributed than perhaps at any time except the century following the black death, and seeking change in 2010, when the story for 2 generations has been the capture of greater wealth and power by the wealthy and powerful. The former requires a project that will deliver greater happiness and prosperity, and is inherently utopian and radical but the latter can actually be profoundly conservative, seeking a return to the norms of a previous age. The liberal movements of the 60's failed as young people began to get invested in society, as their support had always been drawn from those who were disenfranchised. The potential for the OWS movement grows stronger as economic trends continue, and progressively more people fall out of the middle class. Articulating a view of a new society is an extremely silly thing for OWS to do, when a simple demand for a return to economic justice and political representation is at once more practical and more populist than any possible model they could come up with.

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    Comment number 15.

    This is a beautiful piece of history - but I don't fully see the connection to the Occupy movement.

    Occupy was started by Adbusters, which is definitely from the more optimistic 'pop art' side of the Left, believing you can use the language and symbolism of capitalism to wake people from their consumer trances.

    Anyway, fascinating as ever, thank you for it.

    Jules Evans

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    Comment number 16.

    The OWS is about integrity rather than left vs right... hence why it is starting to attract a rather disparate crowd of political followers. The idea that its not "for" anything and perhaps falls into the "trap" is a rather narrow view of what "for something" means.

    The simple fact is no political agenda can truly operate as envisaged in a kleptocracy. Which is what a growing number of observers hold we have got here. If you go to kurdistan and look at the issues elections are fought on the notion of left vs right or any other political polarity runs a distant second to the notion of anti-corruption.


    The simple fact is that just about any political system run with integrity would be better than this. Even market capitalism run with a true buccaneering spirit that wasn't stacked in favour of a pre determined elite that had corrupted politics.

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    Comment number 17.



    I don't think Adam's point is that OWS lacks vision, nor disputes that "[p]ositive changes are being proposed." That it is a decentralized movement guarantees diverse opinions, after all. Some of them are even the sort of thing the average prole might agree with. Who else but the extraordinarily privileged would argue that the current economic system isn't an outrageous scam? And so OWS gains supporters by the week.

    But it is doomed to failure. And not just for lack of a leader. For one thing, the focus (however fuzzy it is) on Wall Street is off the mark. Yes, it represents the apex of the sort of greed-deluded certainty in the "power of the market" that is such an outrage. But you might as well take over your art college for all the good that it'll do. Why not occupy the US Congress? It's been hijacked by a cabal of idiots (put there funny enough, by another "grassroots" movement, only this one funded by a couple of mercenary billionaires) determined to stymie any effort to not only help the average poor slob but to force Wall Street to change just a little.

    Occupy Wall Street? Why? For street theatre? Big deal. Wall Street will remain the problem it is for as long as it's allowed to. Camping in a park nearby will have net zero effect in changing that.

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    Comment number 18.

    Ah, Fourier's 'Phalanx' translates into Spanish as 'Falange', the Fascist movement of Primo de Rivera which inspired Franco. Thus are good ideas co-opted by unpleasant people. It is shocking to note that the emblem of the Police (Guardia Civil) in Spain shows the Roman ceremonial Fasces (adopted by Mussolini, which gave their name to Fascism), with a sword, the Royal crown above them. Spain has still not emerged from the shadow of Franco and the Falange.

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    Comment number 19.

    Was there trying to get a finish on ideas picked up in Paris. I did not get on well with with the well off Trots. They were constantly conspiring to not get things done. They were tight as ticks with the lolly as well: art, photography, and film making consumed money. The Stazi at the Arts Lab had glommed the work we did in Paris.
    Also there was a lot of thieving, for the cause, going on, lost a couple of Leicas and a bunch of lenses to the Dwarf's camera guy. Got to watch Grogan follow Trocci to a misty end, and Old Bill rough up Brothers Stokley, Ware and Joans (were the cops working with Michael X). And in the morning the Redgraves let the air out of The Dialectics of Liberation get together.Wearing guns and making sure that all was P/C
    All the time there was the coup forming on the right.The parties there always had the stiff young Tories along with the young retired Generals who were hoping the hard men would be turned loose in Ireland. I had been interested in the People Democracy movement there. I had attempted a film but was summoned by Special Branch who'd been reviewing my rushes of the take over of the Belfast protests by the American financed East Block armed thugs.
    I had made a singing Ian Paisley film over at Cinema Action. The left seemed blissfully unaware that the bankers were about to have them clubbed to death like baby seals (actually funds were cut off and London went dark.) The group that made a difference were the Tattooists, Cinema Action, Cuddens, and Colin Ward's folk at Anarchy.

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    Comment number 20.

    This neatly crystallizes about twelve nagging feelings I have had for the past decade. Brilliant. I am going to re-read it several times.


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