Not Saussure

March 24, 2007

Looking forward to The Trap

Filed under: BBC, Iraq, Politics, Russia/USSR, UK — notsaussure @ 10:20 pm

Perhaps I should wait until I’ve seen tomorrow night’s programme, but I’ve been puzzling all week about this quote from the Blairwatch interview with Adam Curtis about The Trap.    In it he says, of tomorrow’s film,

The only problem, which is what the last film says, is that when they then try and do that, the only thing they can offer, whether it be the Russian people or the Afghani people or Iraqi people, is a narrow economic idea of freedom which has no meaning or purpose if you are a complicated society divided along nationalist religious and political religious lines.

The thing that I find fascinating about the whole Iraq venture, which is really what I look at in the last film, is the way that they went into Baghdad with an economic plan which basically said that you get rid of all the elitist institutions that have ruled this society and spontaneously then people will rise up as these individuals in the marketplace. That was the idea, they had no other idea, and that’s a very narrow idea of freedom. I see Blair’s tragedy as a man who wanted to try and change the world but the sort of freedom he then tried to bring with him was too narrow and limited to cope with the complexities.

If that’s all he’s saying, it seems to leave a great deal out of the account. Russia, of which I saw something first-hand during the late ’80s and early ’90s, never actually got rid of the ‘elite institutions,’ as he calls them; there wasn’t a sudden change, and it’s hard to see how there could have been. By and large, the old elites managed the privatisation process (so-called; looting might be a better term); there was hardly much market competition for the more desirable assets. Those were merely transferred from the ministries that used to run them to companies, owned and run by the same people who’d been running the companies and ministries, who were now raking in the profits for themselves.

Furthermore, the country completely lacked the fundamentals of an open, free market such as the rule of law and a banking system anyone could understand, and the notional state regulation was so impossible that everyone paid bribes to avoid it as a matter of course. You do not have a free market, in any normal meaning of the word, when contract disputes are settled not in the courts but with firearms.

As to Iraq, I would have said that the plan Mr Curtis describes — going in, telling the people they’re free and expecting everything to work — sounds too bizarre to possibly be true, but since going in without any coherent plan for the occupation was pretty bizarre, too, I suppose nothing should surprise me. But how a market is supposed to operate without any production, without laws, without courts for quite a while… obviously you’d have chaos.

And in a chaotic situation like that, people will naturally group round others who look as if they can protect their interests; these people will naturally be the chaps with the best guns and who’re prepared to be the most ruthless, and also the chaps who you feel you can trust to extent, because they’re from your clan or your area, or you feel you have some connection, even if it’s that you served in the army together and got on.

You cannot expect to have any sort of free society without the institutions to run it, and without people’s consent to those institutions — which will only come, if it comes at all, over time as people learn whether or not they can trust them.

I’d always assumed that the nonsense about the Coalition being greeted as liberators and Iraq becoming a free society almost overnight was just guff to feed the American public and that no one actually believed it. If Curtis is telling us that it was meant to be serious and makes out a convincing case that President Bush and Mr Blair actually believed their lies, then things are far worse than I thought.

I look forward to tomorrow night’s programme with great interest.

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  1. Yes, I’ve enjoyed this series immensely, but, as with anything, a healthy dose of salt and objectivity is required as Curtis expertly bombards assertions juxtaposed effectively with images and music.

    I pretty much thought the same as regards his Iraq argument. If anything I think it’s giving too much credit to the post-war authorities to think that it was a conscious effort to have the iraqis rise up as consumers in a market to fill the void.

    Though it does beggar belief I don’t think they had a plan for the people at all, they just wanted to topple a government and control the key assets, and that was pretty much it. But there is a strong kernel of truth in that I think the planners thought liberation would be enough to have a placid and pliant populace. Perhaps had they worked to give these people the infrastructure they needed for a consumer society to funtion, their threadbare ‘plan’ may even have worked (though i highly highly doubt it).

    Comment by piersy — March 26, 2007 @ 10:47 am

  2. […] second point has been picked up by not saussure. You cannot expect to have any sort of free society without the institutions to run it, and without […]

    Pingback by Fixed Point - A weblog on economics and psychology » Part III of The Trap — March 26, 2007 @ 4:28 pm

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