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Capital and The Trap

Author: joe

Sunday, 18 March, 2007 - 22:31

Is Adam Curtis secretly a Marxist of the purest form, who believes like Marx that the political economy determines the cultural values that circulate in society? His portrayal of the relationship between democracy and the free-market (what Marx might call the 'base') and their effect on society (what Marx might call the 'superstructure') is pure determinism. At times he seems to imply that the influence of a few back-room economists on the policy of Clinton inevitably lead to cultural changes which the rest of us cannot escape. Is he in danger of reproducing the classic Marxist mistake of assuming that people are stupid?

Is Curtis a neo-conservative marketeer who criticises the target-driven culture of the last 10 years because it has not worked, or a neo-socialist who believes in regulatory intervention? We will never know because he equates the intervention of target-setting with the no-holds-barred free market. Just because a target is set without law or regulation does not mean it is not a political intervention.

Is Curtis an anti-science luddite, who only partially read arguments for the selfish gene in order to criticise those models for being deterministic? Certainly, he appears to imply that Maynard-Smith and Dawkins merely think that organisms are machines for genes. Had he read Dawkins' book The Extended Phenotype, (published 5 years before the date of the clip of Dawkins used in the film) he would have been familiar with that biologist's well-argued retraction of the robot metaphor. Indeed he would have understood that the 'machines for genes' discourse leads to a new understanding of collaboration (between single-celled organisms, into eukaryotic cells, into larger, multi-celled organisms, and between organisms into a symbiosis or ecology) which is not only characterised by the reach of the gene.

However, the attentive viewer who is led down some of these cul-de-sacs will be relieved to learn that, on the contrary, Curtis may not believe any of these things.

The frustrating thing about this film was the ellipsis: while watching I find myself railing against the partiality and elliptical nature of the argument, only to discover the twist later in which balance is at least partly restored. At the end, Curtis dramatically announces that, actually, economists and geneticists alike might have revisited some of the deterministic theories they produced, and now think that the world may be more complex. Maybe Curtis will do the same?

Without trying to pre-empt the outcome of Curtis' argument in next week's third and final part, I nevertheless have an eery feeling that we will hear about emergent complexity, possibly related to evolutionary-stable-states, which will redeem aspects of game theory, and thereby rescue mankind from its current narrative status - the disequilibrium of being a determined gene machine; maybe we'll hear about, far from the market as a mechanism of a kind of social natural selection, actually there is an unequal competition between corporations with power and markets of consumers with none; we may even learn that democracy and the free market are not the same thing. Shock, horror. I can only hope that he will complicate his argument further by conceding that our social relationships and ideas of freedom are not merely inevitably determined by economic policy, and that superstructural mechanisms, made out of things like his own film, contribute to the 'emergent complexity' of cultural life.

It's rather disingenuous of Curtis to narrativise the debate in this way: it creates a story, yes, but it does a disservice to his argument, and the protagonists in it. For all that I sympathise with the points of view he seems to put forward - that free markets aren't the solution to the world's problems, that pharmaceutcals medicalise the world in order to profit, that people are not machines - there are better ways to make the case than to set up straw-men for later demolition.

Categories: adam-curtis, freedom, genetics, game-theory, political-economy, marxism, market, humanity,
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