Sunday 30 October 2011, 17:23

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

Tagged with:


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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

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?

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. If you're reading via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog to access this content.

Tagged with:


Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Ah, we have a problem in defining "rational". I studied economics so I am familiar with the concept of "rational" as acting only in one's self-interest with the maximum amount of available information at hand to make a decision coupled with the least amount of labour or other exertion (including the lightening of one's wallet). This definition derives from work done by Adam Smith and David Ricardo in the 18th century. The definition has little or nothing to do with ethics, social context, motivations and psychology and ties in very neatly with the confusion of the interests of financial markets with the interests of what we might call "real" economies (ie those economies concerned with the production and supply of goods and their associated services).

    I studied some political philosophy in an adult education course and can see how a lot of what I learned in economics is itself derived from Thomas Hobbes's writings about human nature and why humans need government. So "rationality" as I have understood it is based on a set of assumptions that presume another set of assumptions made over 300 years ago and which has never been questioned.

    Actually I'm the one who wasn't impressed by "All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace" for reasons similar to the ones that impressed Elly. Just click on my username in green to get all the posts I've put up on all the forums on Adam Curtis's blog and scroll down to see the relevant comment I make. My impression is that in each episode Curtis put up a premise and cherry-picked the evidence to support it. If you like my blather and want more punishment from it, you can read the critiques I make about the episodes on my film review blog. Once you get there (the blog site URL is at Comment 50 here or just go through my posts), just scroll down the left-hand side to the tags, click on "Documentaries" and then just scroll through all the boring essays. You'll need to turn a page as well.

    I admit to being no less guilty in cherry-picking my evidence to deflate the Fourier phalanx idea in Comments 67 - 70 and I do make some spectacular jumps in my thinking. I've always been the kind of person who does 2 + 2 and ends up with 222 while everyone else gets 4. Everyone, feel free to read those comments; just because they are addressed to someone in particular doesn't mean you're not allowed to read them.

    From what I know, the kibbutz project is winding down in Israel but mainly for economic / financial and ideological reasons. The mostly right-wing government seems uninterested in supporting it and is also dismantling the s

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Aack, cut myself off! ... The mostly right-wing government seems uninterested in supporting it and is also dismantling the social welfare set. But the rationale behind the kibbutzim still is valid and now that we know of the problems they had, we can still go ahead with similar communal projects as long as these have some mechanism of dealing with or preventing the problems that plagued the kibbutzim.

    I was talking to someone I met today at a half-day seminar given by futurist commentator Keith Suter at WEA Sydney and the guy and I agreed there will be a major transformative event in the next couple of years that could reorient the global order. I anticipated an invasion of Iran: that may very well lead to the disintegration of the United States as we know it. Personally I'm not unhappy about that prospect but I appreciate that if the US collapse leads to further political collapses in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, this will trigger a major existential crisis for us here in Australia who have always on a bigger Anglo-Saxon entity as a crutch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    @NausikaDalazBlindaz - Well, I'm no expert but I assume the intensive eel farming evolved over time as a system, like all the others you find around the world, out of resourcefulness, what worked, and human nature. They might have been the only ones because of either a critical event in their society which didn't happen/hadn't happened yet in the other societies in Australia, or simply location and circumstances.

    Well the differences are just societies reacting to different environments and events, human societies are complex and adapt/evolve well, but that doesn't mean they're all that different, they all have the same baseline. None of them are idealistic, and they're all driven by the same things, one of these things, human nature, doesn't change, environments do, which leads to variations. And just because they're complex it doesn't mean they're built on rational ideas. So that's what I believe leads to different conclusions and priorities.

    Sure, I agree, not everyone at the top got there through intelligence or usefulness, that's not what I'm arguing, corruption etc are part of your typical human society too, and luck can be factored into a complex group like a society. It's natural, and there's no way to eliminate it.

    Again, the lack of development of democracy can be traced to environmental reasons, the playout of events.

    Well in that extremely simple model you can't change the circle, because that's the aim (an idealistic society), changing the circle would change the aim, and so it would still be a failure.

    Yeah you can do that, but how would that change anything or lead to a permanent, idealistic society? You can make it more efficient, less oppressive, more tolerant, introduce technology/medicine to enhance lives and make them longer, but you've essentially still got the same system with the same main problems, just a different version of it, a more efficient version.

    I don't think we should mistake the rise of technology and cultural changes as proof of potential for a society free of the problems which are caused by the workings of any complex system such as a society (which I'd love to show but I don't have a supercomputer at hand) and the fact that we have certain biological urges and predispositions which makes an idealistic society unfeasible. You can't change maths, but humans can evolve, so there's your path to the dreamworld (well not quite, we might evolve for the worst, and perhaps in the future technology instead of evolution can play a more major role with genetic engineering/nano-bots and whatnot, oh, and we're running out of space, and we might commit planetary suicide with all these nuclear weapons).

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    @theartteacher2 - Apparently this rule comes from observation, and people believe that they've observed it in different systems. And not the only one, there's plenty of mathematics concerning complex systems, some specific to societies. If it's universal, as it seems to be, then it should be observed (and has been) in all systems, not just certain types.

    …what do you mean get rid of systems? Have no systems? How on Earth would that work, what are you suggesting? We need to order ourselves in a certain way, a system will naturally arise if you put some humans and some resources like food in a room, whether you want it to or not.

    Hmm, well if events pan out with any degree of luck and we make it through this period without destroying ourselves, I believe future species of human may have the chance of conquering the stars, and eventually the galaxies, becoming a 'type III' civilization, and may even live to see the end of the universe and escape to another one, how's that for optimism?

    But right now we're just apes on a floating speck of dust, all potential, and we might not even amount to anything.

    There are no people fighting or having sex because they are part of a society, and societal pressure means their brains understand that acting that way will lead to them not surviving. Stick the same people on an island (another cliché) and they will act like savages, and resort to the baseline hierarchies/society from scratch. You're not as rational and civilized as you think, you're more like an 'animal' than the rational higher beings we like to think of ourselves as. Even our culture is predominantly influenced by biological urges, fashion, art, music, sport: sex and survival. Mostly. We're getting there, but we're not quite there.

    All this talk of fighting and sex reminds me of Salsbury, a school in my area I was luckily not sent to. A friend of mine who went there told me she saw people in her year (13 year olds) regularly have sex in the corridors in between lessons, and I've heard stories from both her and others about the extreme and commonplace violence towards teachers and students, stabbings, assaults etc, many horror stories involving permanent severe injuries and of course extreme bullying. I think the school's an academy now.

    We have a weird sense of morality that's very stretchy and sometimes sinister, and creativity is promising, but it's not enough, no amount of creativity can lead to an idealistic society for this species of human. Well Cricket and other sports/games can be compared to any other ritual, show of strength, a bit more complex than two mountain goats locking horns or a pack of wolves hunting, but the principle's the same. We're not totally free of our animalistic side at all.

    I don't quite agree with man being what you make him, we're flexible, but not that flexible. There's no way of making a piece of paper into an elephant, or lead into gold (well you can with a nuclear reactor, but it's not profitable). I think we're living in social groups very well, I don't think there's a 'bad' way of living in them, just bad social groups, and I've already said in my opinion we're stuck with the ones we have.

    Oh no I enjoyed it, fun to watch with all the interesting bits of forgotten moments in history and links between them, although the main reason I watched them was because I'm part of group working on a film using cybernetic ideas, namely the ones in 'cybertext: perspectives on ergodic literature' – Espen J. Aarseth. Really? But isn't that the point of capitalism, that everyone's free to do what we want, and people have done what they wanted. Surely the only true way of understanding people and the world would be a scientific, technical way free from subjectivity?

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    A key reason why the 60s 'counterculture' failed to dramatically change the world order is that its members - even very intelligent ones - became infatuated with rhetoric and disdained the hard boring work of researching, analysing and understanding the world. Sometimes romance is a flight from epistemic humility.

    Saying that Man is just a smart animal and therefore cannot change the world is just another rhetorical flourish; an unexamined sentiment of the age. Like many religious axioms it falls apart at the least direct scrutiny - prima facie - but sits stubbornly within a blind-spot in those who believe in and go on repeating it.

    I wonder what human action it would take to persuade these believers that humans can change and improve their world. Miracles? It's a world of cause-effect, we are limited creatures, the fruit takes time to ripen, of course. The world has changed a lot already and will go on changing - for better or worse who knows, but human ideas may well have a decisive influence. Human ideas may make the difference between environmental catastrophe and a new Enlightenment.

    So easy to scoff at these dreams and say 'oh everything dies in the end anyway' when you're snuggled up with your laptop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    @ G: Well I think also in our Anglo-Saxon societies we have absorbed so much hyper-individualist American pop culture that we have forgotten how to co-operate work together. Negotiation and community action are now seen as something insular NIMBY crack-pots do. If you look at most TV and Hollywood movie narratives, they are all about lone individuals taking on a mass enemy and the simple plots and sub-plots (if there are any) converge in conflict from which there is only one winner. There is never any co-operation or negotiation or other resolution scenario in which everyone wins and no-one loses - and if there was such a scenario, it would be derided as "PC"! Add to that most computer games structured on a narrative of a lone player who goes through several levels picking off representatives of an enemy: these seem to be what attracts most young adults, teenagers and younger age groups.

    So it is no surprise that Elly sees young people behaving atrociously in his/her community and thinks they are representative of base human nature when it could just be that youngsters have an intuitive understanding of what Western culture and in particular Anglo-Saxon culture really values beneath the layers of refinement. So young people tend to gravitate to those activities and behaviour they unconsciously know or believe adults practise - because they have seen them on TV, at the cinema or on their PCs and laptops.

    If our cultures valued co-existence, co-operation, community and respect for self and others, then children and young people will adopt these values wholeheartedly. We would have much less conflict in homes and schools and any bullying or other violent behaviour that does occur in schools would be dealt with immediately by school authorities when parents bring it to their attention.

    We have a situation in my state (New South Wales in Australia) where ethics teaching has been proposed for primary schools and is presently being carried out in many if not most government schools. But the program is not secure because the usual suspects like the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and Christian religious parties in State Parliament have complained about it and have taken steps to try to force it out. How can we expect children to believe in institutions that act against in their own self-interest and ignore the children's interest?

    When our societies lose faith in government, religion, the armed forces, police, teachers and other major institutions because they act only in their own self-interest (or are portrayed as acting in their own self-interest by for-profit media), it's no wonder people retreat into themselves and become vulnerable easy pickings for dreamworlds peddled by Hollywood and others.

    When you talk about Rational Morality, are you referring to morality that says anything is OK as long as you don't hurt anyone or are you referring to morality that states I should take care what I do, not do anything to excess and be mindful of the impact my actions have on my environment? Sounds a bit like a Buddhist point of view. I will have to look at some stuff I may have on Immanuel Kant as well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    @ Elly: "Surely the only true way of understanding people and the world would be a scientific, technical way free from subjectivity?"

    The key expression here is "free from subjectivity": most models of understanding the world, however scientific, technical or mathematical they are, have underlying assumptions about the world and people that you need to be aware of. Sometimes you need to know who developed the model originally and in what context it was developed. Look at my comment 81 and comments to G where I query his definition of "rational" and you will see we have different views of what is "rational". It can be very difficult to know how value-neutral a model is and you may need someone from a different study discipline to check a model you want to use and point out any biases in it.

    Also if you have seen Episode 2 of "All Watched Over ...", you will know that model which assumes systems have an in-built equilibrium was arrived at by a botanist and a military general with completely different ideas about organising human society and rationales for doing so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I have just come home via one of my city's infrequent and very rowdy night-buses. As I arrived at the bus-stop I witnessed a cruel, ugly brawl beginning among a group of men across the road. They were really going all-out. At one point one of them, knowing he could not defend himself, was standing with his arms open repeating "help me... help me" as a man each side of him threw great looping haymakers into his head. At this point I was thinking that I might get hospitalised or killed if I intervened but that I might have no choice (morally, I mean). I looked around to gauge the sentiments of the other male onlookers nearby and saw that they (like the women) were grinning and chuckling with wry enjoyment, reminding me of the audience watching The Sex Olympics and The Live Life Show. The man fell to the ground and was going to be kicked around like a football but at that moment police rushed in and aggressively broke up the brawl.

    I can't remember a time when I felt more on the side of the police - I went home feeling that they should all have submachine-guns and a license to kill as standard. How can any good come from such debased beings? After all the fear and hate the larger of the two bloodied groups stuck around the area, talking excitedly and boasting as though they'd accomplished something epic. I imagine fights lend a kind of narrative structure and dramatic tension sorely lacking in a night of inane conversation and self-destructive binge-drinking.

    But really, I still maintain good can come of human beings.

    Nausika, by rational morality I don't think I mean anything complicated or specialised. I just mean applying reason to achieve the best outcome in terms of the wellbeing of conscious beings, like humans and to some extent animals.

    What we have had in some past cultures is largely non-rational, received notions of good and bad conduct that do not necessarily involve a serious assessment of wellbeing. A literate, scientific culture can make informed efforts to design our way of life to maximise wellbeing. This could be done badly, yes, but I think it could be done well too. Doesn't have to be anything stark or clinical about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    @ G: So if the local Ordnungspolizei hadn't turned up, you'd have tried to break up the fight?

    It would be better to pick the fights you have more than 50% chance of walking away from in one piece. You don't say how many people were involved.

    The attitude is a surprise. I would think rather than feel anger or disgust, it would be better to feel compassion for these people that they are so debased. Once upon a time they did have potential as children but for reasons particular to each of them, they were denied opportunities to develop that potential to become decent human beings.

    I've just come across the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit at http://www.actiononviolence.com/ - you may like to browse the website and see how the Scottish government is tackling gang violence, domestic violence and alcohol abuse among other problems. What you may find heartening is that police and social services are reaching out to gangs and encouraging them to change their group dynamics to control the behaviour of individual gang members. So redemption is possible with a compassionate and firm approach.

    This is where rational morality comes in: if you tried to break up a fight out of anger or because you feel you have to, that may not be moral - you would lose your life or health and if you have family, consider that their lives are going to be impacted adversely as well. The more moral action would be to acknowledge that even very degraded people may be worth saving, to reach out to them and find out what torments them, and work with them as partners to create a better life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Nausika, my intention was to be honest, not to present an idealised version of myself.

    Also, I am not wholly convinced that a 'perfect' person (which is hypothetical and absolutely not a thing that exists) would feel only compassion on witnessing, oh, about ten murderously violent morons surrounded by enthusiastic onlookers. You can't eliminate antipathy from human sentiment otherwise you simultaneously destroy appreciation and love. I distrust those religious gurus who grin at everyone and everything all the time. Even sweet, sanguine natures are revolted by the things they dislike - this is not the same as clearheadedly dismissing and condemning an individual completely and forever, which is not what I was doing with said morons; it was just a moment of shock and horror is all; I wanted to convey that I had a rare moment of insight into the minds of authoritarian rightwingers who think there is a section of society that is just scum, and that heavy-handed policing is a good thing.

    Surviving in that situation, had I intervened, would have been more about tact and persuasion than trying to physically fight anyone else's battles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    @ G: I was commenting out of concern for your safety. I am glad to see that you would have just separated the groups if you had intervened.

    Perhaps my choice of terms like "compassion", "redemption" and "saving" was unfortunate. When I mentioned these terms, I did not have religion in mind. I am against organised religion and cult-like religions myself. I was pressured to join a fundamentalist Christian cult and a Scientology cult on separate occasions when I was young but I got away from those. When I mentioned "compassion", I was thinking in terms of treating people as human in spite of and because you believe they are scum. Which is what I can now see you would have done in the situation.

    I admit I get murderous fantasies too about people and situations and have to try to walk them off or do something constructive to get rid of the energy.

    As for that Scottish website, I was simply doing a Google search on whether there was anything about how to deal with fights and gang culture and that was one of the results I saw and I thought it was the best one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    @Elly - Re: the 80/20 rule - It's been observed I'm sure. I think you might be ignoring what sits outside this rule, which contradicts. Look, this kind of certainty, and claims to objectivity, they can be traps. The world is more complicated than we can understand, and faced by this we trick ourselves. It doesn't mean we shouldn't try, and that we can't learn and understand great things, but you must understand our limits in terms of knowledge. The empirical method is fantastic for many things, but it's important to know 1. its limits and 2. the extent to which it is not, in the real world, a completely neutral methodology, because by saying the only thing that exists and we can know is that which can be measured by this method, you exclude the possibility of the existence of anything outside of this. It's like saying ice cream doesn't exist because you can't pick it up on a Geiger Counter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Likewise assertions about humans built on evolutionary axioms. You need to see that these are powerful ideas and ways of understanding the world, but they have limits in that they become dogmatic principles, that people don't question. It's nice to feel secure with certain knowledge or ideas. But don't kid yourself that it's an objective or absolute of final truth. The claims you make are ones than Darwin or Einstein would never have made. Believing we are "just apes on a floating speck of dust" is up to you, but you can't for one second present that as truth, and it's clearly limiting. Science and empiricism and logic, these all require faith as much as religion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    It's quite false to suggest that people on a island would unquestionably resort to savagery. I remember reading Lord of the Flies at school. There's a line in it, 'Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart'. Ralph was wrong to weep, for that at least. Of course people are capable of great barbarism. But what are the conditions? What society did these children come from? In real life, what society, and what influences do those thugs that G describes come out of? When I say 'man is what you make him', I don't mean 'man is what he makes himself' by the way, that's a Nietzsche-type thing. I think there are natural innate aspects to man, very basic things, and basic biological imperatives that can be powerful. But that's it, it's not all pervading in music, fashion, sport, art as you suggest - that's just (strangely) comforting and simplifying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    "Becoming a 'type III' civilization" is not my idea of optimism. How about everyone in the world living fulfilled and peaceful lives free of arbitrary authority? I do like the idea of building spaceships though, I'm up for that.

    I respect what you say about that school, but I find it a little hard to believe. Clearly we're not living in social groups 'pretty well' and in capitalism everyone is not 'free to do what we want'. There's this strand that runs through scientism relating to conservativism and authoritarianism, precision, objectivity (like we're capable of that).....I'm not a philosopher or social theorist, but we need to release ourselves from dogma (of which 'science' is now the dominant example), try to see what is really true as much as we can. I think others have articulated it better. The comments on here have been superb, fascinating, including those I disagree with.


Page 5 of 5

This entry is now closed for comments

Share this page

More Posts


Tuesday 4 October 2011, 17:31


Thursday 3 November 2011, 18:00

About this Blog

This is a website expressing my personal views – through a selection of opinionated observations and arguments. I’ll be including stories I like, ideas I find fascinating, work in progress and a selection of material from the BBC archives.

Blog Updates

Stay updated with the latest posts from the blog.

Subscribe using:

What are feeds?