Not Saussure

March 17, 2007

Some more thoughts on Adam Curtis’ The Trap: the dangers of rationalism

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 3:49 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. [UPDATE — sorry, I should have mentioned; if anyone missed/wants to see the first programme again, there’s a link here.] Curtis’ criticisms of managerialism and performance targets as a governmental panacea certainly resonate — particularly in a week that’s seen the announcement that

Every nursery, childminder and reception class in Britain will have to monitor children’s progress towards a set of 69 government-set “early learning goals”, recording them against more than 500 development milestones as they go

— but many have criticised the way Curtis seems to blame game theory, with what he takes to be its assumption that we’re all completely selfish actors pursuing our own ends, for this state of affairs. For my part, I could certainly see the connections he was trying to make between Hayek, game theory, R D Laing and so on, but I didn’t think it came together anywhere near so convincingly as did The Power of Nightmares, which had a much clearer thesis; that is (at least in part) that Leo Strauss had a particular set of ideas which some his pupils were able to try to implement in practice with dire results.

In my piece I mentioned Michael Oakeshott (regular readers may be sick of hearing about him from me). I’ve not completely worked this out yet, and I’m concerned that I may be making the mistake that so annoys me when literary critics start arguing over what Hamlet is about. It’s never seemed a problem to me — it’s about events in Elsinor following the death of Old Hamlet — but you may know the sort of thing; one critic says ‘It’s about revenge’ and then another critic says, ‘Fair enough, but that doesn’t give as complete account as does my view that it’s about illusion and reality’, which may well give a more comprehensive view of the play but does so by moving the discussion up to another level of abstraction and, before we know it, we conclude that Hamlet is really ‘about’ the nature of life, which is all very well, but so’s King Lear, and it’s not the same play. That is, you can certainly make your account more inclusive by broadening your focus, but you tend thus to lose sight of all specificity in your discussion.

Nevertheless, and with that in mind, I wonder if there isn’t a better way of looking at the material Curtis presents. I suspect what he’s trying explain, and I can see why it wouldn’t fit what Chris Dillow calls his ‘template’ to recognise it, is more sensibly looked at in the light of Michael Oakeshott’s conservative (small ‘c’) critique of Rationalism in Politics. In that essay, which I won’t try here to summarise, he criticises the way the Rationalist

reduces the tangle and variety of experience to a set of principles which he will then attack or defend only upon rational grounds. He has no sense of the cumulation of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been converted into a formula: the past is significant to him only as an encumbrance

and the way that

he believes in argument as the technique and operation of reason’; the truth of an opinion and the ‘rational’ ground (not the use) of an institution is all that matters to him. Consequently, much of his political activity consists in bringing the social, political, legal and institutional inheritance of his society before the tribunal of his intellect; and the rest is rational administration, ‘reason’ exercising an uncontrolled jurisdiction over the circumstances of the case. To the Rationalist, nothing is of value merely because it exists (and certainly not because it has existed for many generations), familiarity has no worth, and nothing is to be left standing for want of scrutiny. And his disposition makes both destruction and creation easier for him to understand and engage in, than acceptance or reform. To patch up, to repair (that is, to do anything which requires a patient knowledge of the material), he regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient

That is, the Rationalist politician looks at his society and rapidly concludes that there’s a better, more rational, way of organising things, because

These forces of change driving the future:
Don’t stop at national boundaries.
Don’t respect tradition.
They wait for no-one and no nation.
They are universal.

and, consequently, he sees it as his role to

liberate Britain from the old class divisions, old structures, old prejudices, old ways of working and of doing things, that will not do in this world of change

As Oakeshott wrote, some 60 years previously,

The conduct of affairs, for the Rationalist, is a matter of solving problems, and in this no man can hope to be successful whose reason has become inflexible by surrender to habit or is clouded by the fumes of tradition. In this activity the character which the Rationalist claims for himself is the character of the engineer, whose mind (it is supposed) is controlled throughout by the appropriate technique and whose first step is to dismiss from his attention everything not directly related to his specific intentions. This assimilation of politics to engineering is, indeed, what may be called the myth of rationalist politics. And it is, of course, a recurring theme in the literature of Rationalism. The politics it inspires may be called the politics of the felt need; for the Rationalist, politics are always charged with the feeling of the moment. He waits upon circumstance to provide him with his problems, but rejects its aid in their solution. That anything should be allowed to stand between a society and the satisfaction of the felt needs of each moment in its history must appear to the Rationalist a piece of mysticism and nonsense. And his politics are, in fact, the rational solution of those practical conundrums which the recognition of the sovereignty of the felt need perpetually creates in the life of a society. Thus, political life is resolved into a succession of crises, each to be surmounted by the application of reason’. Each generation, indeed, each administration, should see unrolled before it the blank sheet of infinite possibility.

Here, I think, we see the reason for the attraction of performance targets and micromanagement. Things can only be improved if we apply a rational solution to the specific problem; we must break it down into its component parts and do this, this and this. Oakeshott devotes much of his essay to exploring what he sees as the two kinds of knowledge involved in almost every human activity, technical and practical knowledge. The first, he says, is the sort that may be

formulated into rules which are, or may be, deliberately learned, remembered, and, as we say, put into practice.

He gives as an example of this a recipe in a cookery book; take the following ingredients and do the following things in the right order. But, as Oakeshott says, this has to be combined with what he calls practical knowledge, which can only be gained by practice and experience. The recipe required for making a good French omelette is trivially simple, but actually being able to make one involves practice until you’re able to gauge, without having to think about it, whether the mixture of oil and butter is just hot enough but not so hot you’ll burn the eggs, at what stage the omelette is just beginning to set and it’s necessary to turn the omelette over (which itself requires some practice if you’re not to break it) and at what stage to remove it from the heat, given that it’ll continue cooking as it cools.

As you can maybe tell, I cook a decent omelette (though I say so myself). The best advice I can give to anyone who wants to acquire this valuable skill is to start by buying a couple of dozen eggs and to practice on them, being aware that you’ll have to throw away the first few attempts as inedible because you’re too busy watching for the particular signs that the foam on the oil and butter mixture is just starting to subside, or that the eggs are just sufficiently solidified for turning, that you’ll miss the time actually to do it. I suppose someone could, by rigging up timers, cameras and thermometers, produce an exact account of precisely how a far more skilled chef than I cooks his omelettes, but it would be impossible to emulate his timings and so on, because, though practice, he doesn’t need to worry about precisely how many seconds at a particular temperature something’s been cooking. He can do it apparently effortlessly because he’s so used to doing it. As Oakeshott says,

nobody supposes that the knowledge that belongs to the good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in the cookery book; technique and what I have called practical knowledge combine to make skill in cookery wherever it exists.

The same is true of activities rather more momentous than cooking omelettes, of course. Only this week, I had a conversation with someone who’s recently retired from running a very successful nursery. She said, of the DfES ‘early learning goals’ that, yes, of course of these things they mention are things of which you’d be want to be aware as indicators of how the child is developing. Apparently (or at least when she trained) you were taught to look at these signs of development in early childhood and to realise why they’re significant as indicators of the child’s overall development, and then you went on to learn, by working alongside more experienced colleagues, to notice them without realising it, at least until you sat back and analysed why you thought things were going well (or not) in particular aspects of the child’s development. And, as she said, you’re primarily concerned with them not as ends in themselves — targets the child or the carer should meet — but as indicators of how well the child is developing overall and areas where more attention may be needed. If you’re going to spend half your time looking for particular behaviours and ticking boxes, she suggested, you’re going to lose sight of what you’re trying to do — caring for the child and helping it with its overall development.

Oakeshott goes on to argue that the same is true of virtually every human activity and also to argue that, because the practical skill, which can only be gained through experience and engagement with the task at hand, cannot be precisely formulated, the Rationalist dismisses it as valueless. He writes,

practical knowledge can neither be taught nor learned, but only imparted and acquired. It exists only in practice, and the only way to acquire it is by apprenticeship to a master–not because the master can teach it (he cannot), but because it can be acquired only by continuous contact with one who is perpetually practising it. In the arts and in natural science what normally happens is that the pupil, in being taught and in learning the technique from his master, discovers himself to have acquired also another sort of knowledge than merely technical knowledge, without it ever having been precisely imparted and often without being able to say precisely what it is. Thus a pianist acquires artistry as well as technique, a chess-player style and insight into the game as well as a knowledge of the moves, and a scientist acquires (among other things) the sort of judgment which tells him when his technique is leading him astray and the connoisseurship which enables him to distinguish the profitable from the unprofitable directions to explore.

Now, as I understand it, Rationalism is the assertion that what I have called practical knowledge is not knowledge at all, the assertion that, properly speaking, there is no knowledge which is not technical knowledge. The Rationalist holds that the only element of knowledge involved in any human activity is technical knowledge, and that what I have called practical knowledge is really only a sort of nescience which would be negligible if it were not positively mischievous. The sovereignty of reason: for the Rationalist, means the sovereignty of technique.

The heart of the matter is the pre-occupation of the Rationalist with certainty. Technique and certainty are, for him, inseparably joined because certain knowledge is, for him, knowledge which does not require to look beyond itself for its certainty; knowledge, that is, which not only ends with certainty but begins with certainty and is certain throughout.

And this is why targets and performance monitoring are so attractive. They offer an easily verifiable check that the technique is being properly followed.

There seem to be two, related, syllogisms. The first is something like, the following are quantifiable features of a good, well-run hospital. If, then, we ensure that our hospitals have these features, we therefore have a good, well-run hospital. The second is something like, if the appropriate techniques are applied (everyone follows ‘best practice’, as the current parlance has it), we’ll achieve the features that comprise a good, well-run hospital (or school, or whatever). And, as I gather from Blairwatch’s synopsis of the second programme, Curtis demonstrates how this goes horribly wrong in practice. We’ve had a recent example of this; only last Sunday, I was listening to an item on The World This Weekend about complaints concerning the care of soldiers in Birmingham Selly Oak Hospital, and thinking that it’s not just the soldiers who’ve cause for complaint — my 80-year-old uncle recently had surgery there and received similarly deplorable post-operative care. Then a chap from the Hospital Trust came on the programme going on about how the hospital had met all its performance targets and was well up in the league tables for umpteen indicators and heaven knows what else.

Very gratifying for the Hospital Trust, I’m sure, but it still didn’t alter the fact that there’s something clearly badly wrong with their nursing care, and no amount of success in meeting targets is going to alter that. Then, of course, because overshooting targets is as bad as missing them, we have the spectacle of hospitals cancelling operations to meet financial targets.

All this is by way of thinking aloud, but I think the connection that Curtis sees but doesn’t really recognise is that game theory and performance targets are connected by, and very attractive to a particular kind of politician, because of their rationality and certainty We’ve got rational players whose moves can confidently be predicted. Similarly, we’ve got a problem — be it ‘how do we run the Health Service?’ or ‘How do we have a less ‘anti-social’ society?’ — that can, apparently, be solved if we get everyone to comply with our rationally-designed plan. And, to ensure they’re complying, we monitor what they’re doing and offer them various incentives and disincentives (to which, being rational and self-interested actors, they should respond — but the trouble is the buggers won’t, or not in the way we want them to) do behave according to plan.

Oakeshott writes, and this, I think, helps explain the authoritarianism inherent in New Labour (not, I fear, that the Conservatives are going to be much better), that what the rationalist politician

cannot imagine is politics which do not consist in solving problems, or a political problem of which there is no ‘rational’ solution at all. Such a problem must be counterfeit. And the ‘rational’ solution of any problem is, in its nature, the perfect solution. There is no place in his scheme for a ‘best in the circumstances’, only a place for ‘the best’; because the function of reason is precisely to surmount circumstances. Of course, the Rationalist is not always a perfectionist in general, his mind governed in each occasion by a comprehensive Utopia; but invariably he is a perfectionist in detail. And from this politics of perfection springs the politics of uniformity; a scheme which does not recognize circumstance can have no place for variety. ‘There must in the nature of things be one best form of government which all intellects, sufficiently roused from the slumber of savage ignorance, will be irresistibly incited to approve,’ writes Godwin. This intrepid Rationalist states in general what a more modest believer might prefer to assert only in detail; but the principle holds –there may not be one universal remedy for all political ills, but the remedy for any particular ill is as universal in its application as it is rational in its conception. If the rational solution for one of the problems of a society has been determined, to permit any relevant part of the society to escape from the solution is, ex hypothesis, to countenance irrationality. There can be no place for preferences that is not rational preference, and all rational preferences necessarily coincide. Political activity is recognized as the imposition of a uniform condition of perfection upon human conduct.

Anyway, my few euros’ worth for the time being. I’ll certainly be watching tomorrow’s episode.

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  1. I’ve not seen the first part of the programme myself, tho after that exegisis I’ll definitely watch the second.

    What role do you think the quest for equality plays in this modern managerialism? Is it just one subcategory of the quest for perfection, perfection = equality? It seems that in at least some instances of the boxticking culture procedures are imposed which it is acknowledged won’t lead to the best possible outcomes, but which at least mean everyone will have the SAME outcome. We must avoid the dreaded “post-code lottery” at all costs.

    And Paulie from Never Trust a Hippy would, if I understand him right, make a highly convincing case for the problem not being with Rationalist politicians seeking to impose perfection, but with “people”, or in reality the media, demanding perfection from them.
    What would you say to that?

    Comment by alabastercodify — March 17, 2007 @ 7:45 pm

  2. **I didn’t think it came together anywhere near so convincingly as did The Power of Nightmares, which had a much clearer thesis**

    You are right, but then the ideas Curtis is attempting to get across in The Trap are slightly more complex. I can only say that I thought it hung together much better on viewing a second time. Once you know where he’s going it’s easier to follow his arguments. Watch it again if you can folks :)

    Comment by republished — March 17, 2007 @ 9:15 pm

  3. alabastercodify — Postcode Lotteries. I don’t think equality particularly comes into it, or not in the way complaints about different outcomes from schools are frequently based on perceived inequalities. It’s not a phrase I particularly like, since it implies — in this context — the workings of blind chance when it’s actually being used to describe the arbitrary decisions of particular NHS hospital trusts to withhold particular treatments in order to meet their targets. And, while I can quite see that the NHS can’t pay everything, I’d rather decisions were taken on basis that had more to do with medical priorities and less to do with managers’ performance reviews.

    I’d have to see article from Never Trust A Hippy to which you allude, but while the media certainly exacerbate the problem, I can’t really see the poor politicians as being unwilling victims of unreasonable demands by newspaper editors (on behalf of ‘the public’). Rather, I think, it’s a case of politicians promising to ‘do something’ about particular problems — and, of course, being more than happy to take the credit if these problems somehow resolve themselves — and then both their opponents and the media complaining when the problems don’t get solved.

    Media pressure doesn’t help, certainly, but I think it’s the politicians’ fault for starting the game in the first place, or, possibly more accurately, for keeping it going.

    ‘Republished’ — I agree the idea he’s trying to put across are more complex than they were in The Power of Nightmares, but I’m still confused, having seen the first programme twice (link added to main post) as to what exactly they were.

    Flying Rodent raised a similar point to yours in the comments to my previous piece; I won’t rehearse at any length what I said there, but what really confused me was the section on R D Laing and psychiatric diagnostics, the relevance of which — other than that Laing talked a lot about freedom and games and that diagnostic practices introduced in response to experiments inspired by his work are in some ways analogous to performance indicators — I still can’t see.

    I know very little about the background to all this but, at first glance, I’d have thought you could just as well make out a case that these psychological tests were inspired by the Behaviourist insistence that we should be looking at observable behaviours rather than speculating about internal psychological states. While I can also see that you could argue that Skinner and R D Laing, despite their apparently massively different views, both had a similar view of the self, that’s conducting the argument on a very different level from the specificity of the first programme, which seemed to cast particular theorists as the villains of the piece (I blame that Rene Descartes, myself).

    Things may well, judging by the synopsis of the second programme, become clearer after tonight. More later.

    Comment by notsaussure — March 18, 2007 @ 11:35 am

  4. I saw only the second programme tonight and was most unimpressed with the attempt to hang the problems of the world on markets.

    On an overly logical attachment to rationalism as you describe so well, then yes. But to blame the markets was to bring in a new elemetn which Curtis could not deal with in a useful way. His left wing ideology just started screaming at me and dorwing out his good points.

    Of which there were some, the idea that politcians’ can control everything and make a good fis tof it. of course not and we are seeing the results of their attempts.

    he said less about why the people voted for all this. There is an interesting aspect of people living in a complex and fast moving world wishing for a guiding force for good that can help them. He did not explore this as he wanted to say there is no democracy; again without any real explanation.

    Just because ministers have unpaid advisers does not mean we don;t have representative democracy. If it did then the civil service ended this years ago.

    A typical example of this was his statementt hat broiwn handed over all power to teh markets by making the bank of enlgand independent. What a load of tosh, how about setting tax rates? How about market regulation?

    For all this though, intellectual viewing on the telly, blimey.

    Comment by cityunslicker — March 18, 2007 @ 11:13 pm

  5. Come off it Curtis and the BBC..we all know democracy has been dead in Britain since World War 2 and that we are part of an American Empire which has comprehensively asset stripped us and destroyed our social democracy.What I want to know is why the BBC has gone along with it?

    Comment by Nemesis — March 18, 2007 @ 11:42 pm

  6. I thought he got it spot on.

    If anyone’s wondering why the government interferes so maniacally in our personal lives (smoking bans, databases etc.), I reckon it’s because they’ve abicated their role in the economy.

    They’ve got bugger all else to do to win over the voters, basically.

    If anyone would like to explain their alternative theory for why inequality has rocketed and social mobility has ground to a halt, I’m all ears.

    Comment by Flying Rodent — March 19, 2007 @ 12:44 am

  7. Adam Curtis: The Trap, part 2

    Trackback by Not Saussure — March 19, 2007 @ 10:15 pm

  8. […] The Trap – available on IndyBay if you missed it, or just click here — I found rather more coherent than the first, though I’m still having trouble pulling together the various strands of economics, […]

    Pingback by Adam Curtis: The Trap, part 2 « Not Saussure — March 19, 2007 @ 10:17 pm

  9. watch the first two episodes at:

    Comment by Winston Smith — March 24, 2007 @ 1:48 am

  10. Talk about a post with pack of Adam Curtis’ information. Very well said.

    Comment by Rizal — August 6, 2007 @ 7:54 am

  11. Good old Adam Curtis. Thank you for sharing such a great post. I’ve learned new knowledge about this guy as well.

    Comment by Jason — August 27, 2007 @ 3:22 am

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