Not Saussure

March 12, 2007

Thoughts on Adam Curtis’ The Trap

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 11:08 pm

Not completely sure what to make of Adam Curtis’ The Trap last night, though I must say I’m grateful to The BBC for linking to my previous piece about the programme, even though they quoted me quoting their press release — a bit naughty of them, I thought. Nevertheless, it’s generated some very interesting comments there, to which I hope to respond shortly.

I found it fascinating, but I had difficulty following the argument, I think because of what seemed to be a bit of a detour via R D Laing. The initial section about how game theory sees us all as isolated and self-interested, watching each other like paranoid hawks, derives from Cold War strategic planning — where the Pentagon and the Soviet High Command were, one suspects, not unreasonable in thus regarding each other — was very interesting, but I could have done with more detail on how this got itself applied, if it got itself consciously applied, to other aspects of life.

The R D Laing material was all very interesting, but left me unclear about whether the ‘games’ he saw families playing were modeled on the Rand Corporation’s games theory, or analogous to it, or he’d just picked up the general ideas and terminology and used them for his own purposes, or what. Similarly, I thought there was a very unclear transition from R D Laing — as a result of the Rosenhan Experiment, in which experimenters, inspired by Laing, gained admission to mental hospitals and that had difficulty leaving, since they couldn’t persuade staff that they’d only been faking their symptoms in the first place, American psychiatrists adopted supposedly more objective, observational, diagnostic tests — to performance targets in the NHS (everything similarly observed, apparently objectively).

Both Tim Worstall and Chris Dillow, who know far more about this sort of thing than do I, are pretty critical of the programme’s use of Hayek and other social theorists as the villains of the piece; they seem to reckon Curtis badly oversimplified here, and I’m inclined to take their word for it. My suspicion is that, as so often happens, politicians latched onto bits of Hayek to provide some sort of justification for what they wanted to do anyway, but who am I to say? I’ve not read a great deal of Hayek, but I have to say, at least of Mrs Thatcher’s attempts to apply his work to British politics, I found my misgivings best summed up when I came to read Michael Oakeshott:

This conversion of habits of behaviour, adaptable and never quite fixed or finished, into comparatively rigid systems of abstract ideas, is not, of course, new; so far as England is concerned it was begun in the seventeenth century, in the dawn of rationalist politics. But, while formerly it was tacitly resisted and retarded by, for example, the informality of English politics (which enabled us to escape, for a long time, putting too high a value on political action and placing too high a hope in political achievement–to escape, in politics at least, the illusion of the evanescence of imperfection), that resistance has now itself been converted into an ideology. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom –not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine, A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.

That is, I was always suspicious of the idea that a market solution must be the best one — to my mind, there’s not usually a best solution is politics and I’m more than happy with minor improvements (provided they actually work, that is) on what we’ve got. This ideology that a market solution is best, so where it’s not particularly practicable to have a real market solution (e.g. in the NHS) we must try to create a virtual market that imposes on the organisation the disciplines we think real markets impose in actual circumstances, seems — both to me and to Adam Curtis, though possibly for rather different reasons — to have been responsible for many problems.

I could also have done with some more on James M Buchanan and public choice economics; he appeared in the programme as another interpreter of politics and the civil service as a debunker of the idea of altruism and public service who showed that politicians and civil servants were, in fact, still more self-interested actors. That’s always seemed to me a bit of an oversimplification; I think people go into politics because of a combination of a genuine desire to make the country a better place, as they see it, at least, and self-interest, and I think that he got — or, rather, the programme makers had him getting — the civil service rather badly wrong, too. They cited Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister as sit-coms based on Buchanan’s critique of the civil service; I always thought that the comedy missed the point of many of Sir Humphrey’s stratagems. When my late father was a mandarin in Whitehall, he and his colleagues certainly must have seemed very frustrating figures to ministers, but that was primarily because they saw their role as trying to protect both ministers and, more importantly, the public from the consequences of those same ministers’ hare-brained schemes.

The problem, apparently, was that what may have looked very sensible and attractive when you were in opposition, or even when you were in government and were put in charge of a ministry the work of which you didn’t really know much about and which you probably wouldn’t be running in two or three years’ time, didn’t always look quite so sensible to the people who actually kept the show on the road. This was partly because they were trained to bring a scrupulous and somewhat cynical view to the disjuncture between what policies were supposed to achieve and what was likely to happen when they were implemented.

Despite these reservations, I’ll certainly be watching Part 2, an excellent synopsis of which, by Davide Simonetti, is available at Blairwatch.

Update: Fabian Tassano, who doesn’t much care for what he’s heard of the programme’s thesis and will apparently be writing on it when he’s watched it, directs our attention, via a comment in Samizdata (who certainly didn’t like it– no surprise there, then) to a link for the video (real player), should anyone wish to see the programme again or have missed it first time round.
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  1. That’s outrageous the BBC quoting you quoting them. Still – lots of traffic to your blog I guess! ;-)

    I just finished watching the programme and I feel that Chris Dillow’s comments are on the mark from what I know of game theory, public choice and Hayek. I felt that Curtis had correctly diagnosed a problem, but completely failed to understand the causes of the problem. I wouldn’t say I understand the causes either, but I’m pretty sure his explanation is wrong.

    Comment by Dan Goodman — March 13, 2007 @ 1:08 am

  2. If his past films are anything to go by, part one merely sets the scene for the rest of the series.

    I’m just glad someone is willing to take on such grand subjects. I think a little over-simplification is inevitable when trying to pull together so many threads.

    Curtis’s previous films have been about the development of ideas from theories into policy, then accepted wisdom – the final programme usually demonstrates what happens when ideology butts heads with reality.

    From the criticism I’ve read of this episode, Curtis is going to get exactly the same response he got to The Power of Nightmares.

    I remember bloggers attacking him for claiming that Islamist terrorism didn’t exist, when he’d done no such thing.

    Me, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt until I’ve seen the whole thing.

    Comment by Flying Rodent — March 13, 2007 @ 7:51 am

  3. [quote]This ideology that a market solution is best, so where it’s not particularly practicable to have a real market solution (e.g. in the NHS) we must try to create a virtual market…. seems…. to have been responsible for many problems.[/quote]
    Half right. The ‘virtual market’ is the cause of huge problems through ‘cargo cult’ management – the presence of outward forms – targets, appraisals, manpower planning, budgets etc, without the drivers such as price signals, that make them effective. The prewar diverse health econmoy was not perfect, but nationalisation was a 1940s solution to 1930s problems, and the assumption even now that a real market solution is not practical is the core problem.

    Comment by Steve Roberts — March 13, 2007 @ 10:08 am

  4. Flying Rodent — I think the difference between The Trap and The Power of Nightmares — and the reason the latter gelled in a way the former hasn’t for me, or at least not yet it hasn’t — is that Power of Nightmares argued a much tighter thesis. In that, he could point to Leo Strauss and argue that his followers were, quite deliberately, using the threat of Islamic terrorism to plug the hole in a certain conception of America and its role in the world left by the disappearance of the threat of Communism.

    In The Trap, however, it seems to me that he’s saying something a lot more vague; something on the lines of, ‘Here’re some related examples the uses people have been making of ideas and terms that were floating round at the time’.

    That’s what left me so confused about what R D Laing was doing in the programme. It was frustrating, because certainly Laing, at least at one stage, did seem himself as part of the same right-Libertarian body of ideas to which some of Mrs Thatcher’s more extreme supporters adhered, at least while she was in opposition. I remember going along to hear Laing speak at Cambridge University Conservative Association back in the late 70s; unfortunately, the meeting wasn’t a success because that was back when Laing was having serious problems with his alcoholism and, consequently, didn’t make a great deal of sense, but, insofar as he did, he seemed to see a connection between what the sort of personal liberation he advocated and Mrs T’s purported economic liberation. But I could have done with that working about a lot more clearly than it was in the programme. Maybe it will be in subsequent episodes, of course.

    This I found frustrating because there certainly was a clear connection between Laing’s anti-psychiatry, the right-wing economic libertarians and the NHS in the form of ‘care in the community’. The backstory here is that the State of California (on Governor Reagan’s watch if memory serves) found themselves confronted with a Federal Ruling that involuntary confinement in a Californian State Mental Hospital constituted a cruel and unusual punishment because the places were such snake-pits.

    That was, of course, potentially very expensive; but, fortunately, there was a considerable body of opinion that you didn’t need — didn’t want — mental hospitals anyway so the hard-hearted Californian Right, with the enthusiastic support of the soft-headed Californian Left, started returning these folks with their different versions of reality, to the caring community represented by sleeping rough in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with the assistance some badly-overworked psychiatric social workers who’d give them their pills once a month if they remembered to turn up for appointments.

    I saw that first-hand when I lived in California back in the mid-80s, and when I returned here and found out the government actually wanted to replicate it in the UK I couldn’t believe it.

    That’s a direct connection, though, and on a completely different level from what seemed to me the vague similar conceptions of the self in society that were floating around in The Trap. As it was, I could have done with a lot less R D Laing and a much more detailed exposition of the extraordinary way in which the Vietnam War was apparently, and under the direct influence of the Rand Corporation, apparently conducted with an eye to performance targets (and, presumably, someone thought the Vietnam War was such a howling success for the Americans that the NHS should be run on the same lines). That I found fascinating, and I was very frustrated that it was almost a throw-away observation in the programe, though perhaps it’ll receive more attention later on in the series.

    Steve Roberts — quite possibly so, and I’m perfectly willing to agree that if we were trying today to design a National Health Service from scratch we wouldn’t end up with what we’ve got at the moment. However, I deliberately used the word practicable rather than practical because, regardless of whether it’s desirable or not, I don’t think that it’s do-able (in political terms) to say, ‘Right; the NHS isn’t working so we’re going to get rid of it and start over, replacing it with something completely different that we hope will be more ‘fit for purpose.’

    Comment by notsaussure — March 13, 2007 @ 10:49 am

  5. That seems perfectly reasonable – to be honest, I’d never heard of Laing until I saw the show, so I assumed that there would be follow-up tying together the various threads.

    If Rand and Vietnam interested you, I can heartily recommend “The Fog Of War”, which is an extended interview with Robert MacNamara.

    Assuming you haven’t already seen it, that is.

    Comment by Flying Rodent — March 13, 2007 @ 7:19 pm

  6. […] pm The second episode of Adam Curtis’ The Trap will be on BBC 2 tomorrow night, and, despite my reservations about the first part, I’m certainly intending to watch it. Curtis’ criticisms of […]

    Pingback by Some more thoughts on Adam Curtis' The Trap: the dangers of rationalism « Not Saussure — March 17, 2007 @ 3:51 pm

  7. […] theory already covered here, here and here. Not Sassure also provides an interesting take here). Few economists ever believed in homo economicus except as a simplifying assumption, and few also […]

    Pingback by Fixed Point - A weblog on economics and psychology » A load of Pony — March 19, 2007 @ 9:24 am

  8. The Trap: Interview with Adam Curtis

    Trackback by Not Saussure — March 21, 2007 @ 6:27 pm

  9. watch the first two episodes at:

    Comment by Winston Smith — March 24, 2007 @ 1:49 am

  10. […] summarised in quite some detail by Wikipedia. It was far more focussed, to my mind, than were the previous two programmes, omitting the discussions of psychology and genetics that I found interesting but […]

    Pingback by The Trap III: We Will Force You To Be Free « Not Saussure — March 26, 2007 @ 10:10 pm

  11. The Trap gives an important explanation why the anglo-american social model is suicidal and NO FUN .. We are taught to hate each other, where instead we would have much better parties without corporate-strategized society.

    Here are the download links:

    e.g. people in the GDR had a different mindset!! The “little man” laughed much more… considering the circumstances.

    But of course the smug whities know everything better.

    Comment by u2r2h — April 8, 2007 @ 7:53 am

  12. richard hammonds dodge charger


    Trackback by richard hammonds dodge charger — October 25, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

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